Tuesday, August 9, 2011

What is poverty?

I recently finished reading Life at the Bottom: the Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. He's an English author and psychiatrist who has worked in Africa and in Birmingham. After returning from Africa, to work in England, he wrote these essays reflecting on the culture he encountered in the slums of Birmingham.

One reviewer wrote that "he found what he considered to be true barbarism—the cheerless, self-pitying hedonism and brutality of the dependency culture". I found this article which describes the life of a patient he treated in the slums. It has some similar reflections to 'Life at the Bottom', which is also peppered with vignettes of patients.

I had a few gut reactions to this book...

I was really confronted that I meet patients like this frequently. Crime, poverty, domestic violence, drug and alcohol use, dysfuntional relationships, abuse, mental illness, welfare dependence, homelessness and the failure of government services are all right here in south-west Sydney. We have an underclass like the one Dalrymple describes in Britain. And we have created the same cultural traps that bind people in poverty and powerlessness.

Dalrymple is extremely critical of the middle class and the way we have used welfare, social structures and liberal thinking to rob the poor of a way out of their dilemma. He believes that when someone can use their addiction or their history of deprivation and trauma (for example) to explain their criminal or abusive behaviour, they can then avoid examining their own role in creating their current predicament. Rather than empowering broken people to hope, and strive, for a better life, we are telling them there is actually no escape.

Not only that, we reward extreme dysfunction. The more chaotic a person is, the higher they climb the list for priority housing. So people who work hard but start with little, wait longer for any assistance because there is always someone who is having a more impressive emergency, perhaps even as a result of their own carelessness or refusal to participate in the system.

I can see the points that Dalrymple is making, but part of me longs for him to be wrong. I don't want us to be harsh, or punishing of brokenness. I don't want us to abandon grace and compassion. I want humans to be better than this - but we are so not. I felt sad as I read.

There's a saying - 'If you're not a leftie in your twenties, then you haven't got a heart. If you're not a conservative in your forties then you haven't got a brain.' I don't want to abandon my heart, even though my brain whispers quietly to do so. And we walk this tenuous balance of compassion and pragmatism. We need to struggle here, because there cannot be a solution without grace and transformation.

A tight fear grips my heart - I hear lives told, and they leave me incarcerated with no key. If I feel trapped by the tale, how must the one who tells feel. How can they see possibility or hope if I can't?

The step of faith I need to take is this - Insist there is hope. Talk about change and rescue and redemption even when I doubt the possibility.

This is Dalrymple's sobering reflection on true poverty, comparing Africa and Britain,

"Yet nothing I saw—neither the poverty nor the overt oppression—ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centeredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live, that I see daily in England. In a kind of pincer movement, therefore, I and the doctors from India and the Philippines have come to the same terrible conclusion: that the worst poverty is in England—and it is not material poverty but poverty of soul." from What is poverty? Dalrymple, 1999.


Justine Jenner said...

I was interested to read similar comments to Dalrymple in todays paper by Noel Pearson in regards to Indigenous Australians, and I also remember knowing I had to leave my job years ago when I had no hope left for the people I was working with. Lots to think about, thanks Kath.

Kath said...

Yes. Hope is so important. It is always challenging to hear what Noel Pearson has to say I think. He's not into gneralisations or cliches or political correctness.