I want to draw your attention to an article by Linda Tirado. One of my pet hates (and I am deliberately using ‘hate’ rather than ‘peeves’ because this does invoke strong emotion for me) is the holier than thou attitude that frequently comes from people when they address the lifestyles of those trapped in poverty. What is often truly being said is ‘oh, if they were just more like me they wouldn’t be poor.’ As if we’re somehow better because we align a little closer with the image the world around us says we should fit into.
This sort of condescension comes in the form of pointing out everything said person thinks those in poverty are doing wrong. They shouldn’t buy junk food, they should grow their own vegetables, water is cheaper than soda, they just need to work a bit harder, they should stop popping out babies they can’t afford, and they definitely shouldn’t smoke, drink, own a TV (and subscribe to SKY) or play the pokies. All invoke the worst stereotypes but that’s beside the point. What it says is that it’s their own stupid fault they’re poor – they put themselves there, keep themselves there and a few obvious and simple decisions would get them out of it.
This is going to sound harsh but all of the above are ignorant, naive and arrogant. It also doesn’t actually help anyone. It simply allows the accusers to wash their hands of the problem.
With that in mind I almost leaped with joy when I read the article by Linda Tirado that is going viral in the US thanks to The Huffington Post. Linda has said what I’ve been trying to point out for so long but could never articulate like her – poverty is not simply economic, it’s a state of being for many, many people. Yes, someone can be economically poor but not trapped by the enslavement of poverty. People too often address the problem as the former purely economic state while neglecting the latter, all pervasive state. That underlying and all encompassing way of being drives everything and it’s enslaving. I know, it’s where I come from. it’s where I come from, but it’s where Linda has focused her description and she has articulated the oppression of it so well. Now, clearly, Linda, in this piece, is a hard worker so people here in Aotearoa New Zealand might point out our beneficiaries living off state provision at this stage and say they’re different but allow me to point out the paragraph that gets at the heart of the whole thing.
Linda says this – listen carefully:
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
Read the whole article. Poverty is not simply about poor decisions and not being resourceful enough – it’s an all encompassing state of oppression that infects the whole being of a human and once caught in that oppression it becomes self perpetuating and extremely hard to break free from.
This is why the sort of development work TEAR Fund pursues around the world involves many aspects that encompass almost everything about the people we work with. It’s often talked about in simplistic terms but it’s extremely complex as it involves a journey of changing deep seated ways of being and understanding of one’s self. It’s a journey I’ve had the privilege of going on internally across my own life.
There’s a bit of information floating around about Linda Tirado now, some of it discrediting the legitimate nature of her story. I’m in no position to work out or judge what is true or not and she has responded. Either way, she’s captured the problem of poverty and I applaud that. I applaud all those willing to take a step to push against the enslavement of poverty.
To all those caught in poverty, whether you believe it or not, I believe you are a person created in the image of God, as all human beings are. You are endowed with dignity no matter what your circumstances. In the Divine, you are loved and nothing can change that truth no matter what happens in life and what circumstances we find ourselves in. This truth is no silver bullet to the struggles we and the rest of the world faces and I don’t offer it as some trite thought of the ‘religious’, but because it’s the truth that shapes me. The enslavement of poverty can be beaten. May you come to a place where a bigger story than poverty defines you, whatever that story may be.