Let Them Eat Cake: On Playing At Poverty

Society

30.10.2016

Let Them Eat Cake: On Playing At Poverty

The main problem with talking about poverty in New Zealand is that most of us doing the talking, and being heard, are often not what would be considered “poor.” This goes in particular for the hardy souls who decide, ever so often, to publicise their attempts to try poverty out for themselves and try to show how much better they can do it.

A Stuff op-ed article this week (Trust me, I did not go looking for this in an eagerness for hot morning inequality takes. My phone suggested it when I was checking my traffic app, because clearly, my phone hates me) illustrates the pitfalls of this exercise perfectly. A young trainee doctor did an “experiment” of living on $3.30 of food a day for 200 days. He then felt compelled to share his opinion on living in poverty in New Zealand.

I don’t personally know Mark Bekhit, so I cannot speak to his experiences. For all I know he may have indeed experienced living in poverty at some point in his life. But going by what’s contained in his opinion piece alone, it seems unlikely. And while one must commend the young med student for attempting to understand “material poverty” as he calls it, and attempting to have a conversation about addressing social and cultural issues rather than poverty alone to really impact health outcomes, the direction that the conversation ultimately ends up taking is the same, tired path we have trodden time and time again whenever this topic comes up in our collective consciousness. Another iteration of “let them eat cake.”

The resulting “hear hear” is to blame the poor for being poor and staying poor. Little short-term exercises in asceticism like this are proof positive that this must be a choice. Look, someone else managed to live on $3 a day! So why doesn’t everyone else just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, have fewer children, smoke less, drink less, and work harder and…so on and so forth. Just scroll down to the comments for confirmation. I haven’t read them, because have a personal rule against reading comments on the internet, but I’ll bet there’s a decent chunk of people blaming the parents, the welfare system – you name it.

That’d be a bet with money that I have. And that’s the problem. Money that I’d wager both Mr Bekhit and I have, which renders us both quite ill-suited to be talking about poverty.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever experienced poverty first hand. I’m lucky enough to have been born into a family where my parents have never had to worry about paying the next bill, and I know I could turn to them again at any point in my life if I needed to and be supported financially, emotionally, and in any way that I needed. I have a job that pays well above average, a post-graduate degree, and a once-seemingly insurmountable amount of student debt that I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel for.

I may never own a house of my own in Auckland, but I live in a beautiful and healthy one at the moment. And I’ll probably inherit enough to consider owning a home somewhere, someday. I get to travel a little every year. I am not someone who knows what it’s like to go hungry, or worry about making rent. I am privileged enough that I can unequivocally say I don’t know what it’s like to be poor. So how can I talk about poverty?

I’ll attempt it anyway on this count, because sometimes silence perpetuates harm, and I think opinions like Mr Bekhit’s are harmful. Especially considering the profession he is training to enter, one with a duty of care to truly vulnerable members of our society, where one would hope compassion would play an integral part, to say nothing of a reasonable understanding of social-economic context. 

Once you’re in that hole, attempting to climb out often just feels like kicking dirt in your own face. You don’t make enough, so you borrow. Banks won’t touch you because you don’t make enough, so you borrow from finance companies that promise they don’t care about your credit rating, at exorbitant interest rates.

I propose that choosing to engage in a self-designed experiment of living on two Weetbix, a ham sandwich and mince pasta, five days a week for 200 days, teaches us very little about nutrition and health. It teaches even less about what it’s like to be living in poverty in New Zealand. Because that is not what poverty is.

Poverty is thrust upon you. It is not a choice. You are born into it, or you fall into it. Maybe unforeseeable consequences of certain actions take you there. Or foreseeable, but disproportionate - a mistake, maybe you fucked up that one time, just that once. And for those who make up the lower end of our socio-economic scale, balancing precariously on lower rungs of our rat race ladder of inequity and inequality, the slippery slope took care of the rest of that fall. Or maybe it’s simply that your parents were poor, your whole family is poor, and you never knew any other life than this.

It’s also a cycle. So once you’re in that hole, attempting to climb out often just feels like kicking dirt in your own face. You don’t make enough, so you borrow. Banks won’t touch you because you don’t make enough, so you borrow from finance companies that promise they don’t care about your credit rating, at exorbitant interest rates. The more you owe, the less likely you are to ever make enough. You can’t afford a home with a working kitchen, or a landlord who will make it work, or even cookware, so you can’t cook mince pasta, so you’re stuck in a cycle of takeaways that do cost more, and you find that you never have enough to invest that capital in the first place. Poverty is not being able to afford transportation or daycare to go to work or to get work in the first place.

Poverty is feeling like shit because your home is cold, and your food is crap and you have no comfort or meaningful leisure and this impacts every aspect of your life. Aside from the obvious (physical health and whatnot) it saps your being productive at work, in school or jobseeking. It wrecks your mood, your self esteem, your willingness to participate in the community in any positive way.

Poverty is the constant threat of homelessness, which has reached crisis point in parts of the country. That’s even when you’re working, multiple jobs with varying hours, several of you in a single family working all the damn time and still not knowing if you’ll have a house to live in next week.

Poverty is not having options. You can’t decide to change your career, because that requires a buffer. You can’t decide to move to a cheaper town, because that requires savings.  You can’t retrain, study, or start a new business venture. You can’t decide to try something different or follow your dreams or even acknowledge that you have dreams when you’re not sure if you have enough in your pocket for your next meal, and you’re already hungry now.

Poverty is the crippling injustice of hunger. The most basic, visceral need that tugs at every human at the very core of their existence, that does not discriminate. And the gnawing, the constant hum of it can soon translate to a simmering resentment, a rage, that so many of the very same society you live in never have to even think about this.

Poverty doesn’t take breaks on the weekends, or holidays over Christmas, or a week in Bali to escape the winter. Poverty is relentless.  Poverty is a daily humiliation. Poverty makes you especially vulnerable to substance abuse, violence and crime, which in turn keep you locked into that cycle. Poverty is hopelessness. Poverty takes away your agency and your power, and your voice. Poverty instills shame and parades your circumstances for judgment by strangers at dinner table chit-chat and late night talkback radio for those who have never met you. Poverty hangs over your entire life like a dark cloud that stretches to your furthest horizons, casting a dark shadow over every aspect of your personhood. Poverty is also reductive: you may be a complex creature, a full human being with loves and hates and particular tastes and preferences, but firstly you’re poor.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said “Saintliness is not a pre-requisite for dignity” in the context of gender equality, though I find it equally applicable here. We are reluctant to impart any empathy unless the poor first appear faultless.

Poverty is not being given credit for carrying on, in the face of all of this, against all odds, in spite of naysayers and without the guarantee of change or liberation or even a platform.

While issues of representation plague many subsets of society in policy making (Māori, women, people of colour in general, LGBTQ folk, youth, people with disabilities), being poor poses a rather unique conundrum. By its nature, poverty prevents participation. That makes our responsibility (those of us not actually living in poverty) to engage in better-informed and nuanced conversations about this issue all the more imperative. There are many organisations and groups out in our communities really listening and collaborating with the voices that matter, and we need to centre them in this discourse rather than anecdotal exercises.

This is critical, because when we talk about poverty, what we’re talking about is the denial of the most fundamental of human rights: of the right to adequate food, shelter and healthcare. Poverty deprives people of their basic human dignity in objective terms, and the rest of society comes along to rub salt in it with their own standards. We tell them that they’re lazy bludgers, and they should be able to live off mince pasta and $3.30 a day, so the fact that they’re not happy and healthy and fully realised and engaged citizens is their fault.

In her recent essay on raising a daughter, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said “Saintliness is not a pre-requisite for dignity” in the context of gender equality, though I find it equally applicable here. We are reluctant to impart any empathy unless the poor first appear faultless: a non-smoking, non-drinking, non-gambling, church-going, all round salt of the earth good person; a standard we don’t often meet ourselves. As if bad habits or addiction disappear above a certain income level. We fail our communities when we refuse to address this issue with love and compassion at the heart of our approach, a failing never more egregious than when applied in the case of children.

Children are blameless. We have laws in place for the protection of children because we believe they lack the capacity to act in their own best interests. We preclude them from voting, being criminally (well, arguably) liable, being able to enter into contracts or consent to sexual activity, purchasing alcohol, and so on and so forth. Yet we are hell bent on effectively blaming them for the perceived failures of their parents (if I had a dollar for every time “shouldn’t have had kids if you can’t afford it” is thrown around) and punishing them for it. For what else is it, allowing this status quo to continue, but a punishment for existing while poor?

Child poverty is a huge issue in New Zealand. There may be, as Mr Bekhit suggests, widespread public support or at least publicity for initiatives like providing school lunches. However there is very little political will to formally tackle child poverty rates. Meanwhile, the attitude we take to our future generations is cold, short-termist and uncaring. Instead of engaging with empathy, we balk at the self-righteous activist clamour for an end to outdated trends like mass incarceration, because fear is an easy political tool. As criminal justice advocacy group JustSpeak put it two weeks ago, “in the same month that the Government refused to set a target to reduce child poverty they have announced a billion dollars to build cells to house some of these children as adults.”

We don’t treat the symptoms (hungry children) nor the cause (income inequality, inadequate social services, unemployment, inadequate education, lack of affordable housing, histories of trauma and abuse). Thus we allow generations to grow disengaged from and resentful of a society that failed them. Talking about poverty on the back of anecdotes from the comfort of our privileged ivory towers perpetuates the harm our children endure every day. It prevents effective solutions from being implemented because we underestimate the true impact of the issue.

And this is barely skimming the surface of the matter. Which only serves to illustrate that suggesting “material poverty” may not be quite the behemoth problem those bleeding heart lefties make it out to be because, hey, a diet of $3.30 a day is possible, is a garbage opinion to peddle.  All of this, of course, cannot be laid at the feet of a young trainee doctor, who probably embarked on this experiment with likely good intentions. But you know what they say about the road to hell. Maybe it’s time we put down those shovels and stopped paving our way there. 

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