14 October 2011


The idea of poverty has been passed around in the news for the last little while, with the Occupy Wall Street crowd, and the Occupy fill in the blank crowds.  There is even an Occupy Bay Street crowd in Toronto.  In typical Canadian fashion, they will be holding their protest on a Saturday, so as not to inconvenience anyone too greatly.  At the heart of the protest is the idea of rich and poor, wealth and poverty, but few are asking what poverty is, in this modern world of ours.

What the terms "the poor" or "poverty" do not mean now is what they meant in the mouth of Dickens, or other Victorian era reformers.  To them poverty was a crushing burden, unemployment sand starvation, of farming out one's children to other family members who did have work of some sort and could look after them a little, or, if they did work, the grinding trap of fourteen hour days, in conditions that destroyed one's health, or killed one outright, leaving widows and orphans.  It was people crowded into filthy slums, breathing the miasma of coal and sweat and open cess pits; of deadly drinking water; of disease, malnourishment, and starvation, in the heart of plenty.  That image is gone.  The reformers of the past have done their work, both for better and for worse. There is help, albeit small, for the unemployed.  Our air and water are clean, the work day shorter and safer for all.  We are better fed.   So the Dickensian notion of poor and poverty are now largely eradicated in the industrialized world, yet people still speak of "the poor". The term is too wide.  There is true poverty still, but that is not all that is now meant by the word "poor".

In any society, there are always strata among the people, some rank higher, others lower.  In our society, money is one of the great definers and identifiers of class and culture.  Some have more, others have less.  Those who have less are now the poor.

I am among them.  My earnings combined with the size of my family place me right on the edge of the poverty line.  And yet, even the richest people of little more than a hundred years ago could not claim the fantastical luxuries I have in my home.  I can bathe every day, relieve myself in my own house in a way that is clean and virtually odorless.  Lights turn on, or off, with the flick of a switch.  The knowledge of the entire world comes to me through a little black case.  I have televisions (two actually: both gifts from people who upgraded to flat screens, and had no use for their perfectly functioning older sets.  I imagine I will get a flat screen just as soon as the next generation of set comes along)   Computers (one a gift, another salvaged from work following an upgrade) running water, enough food for the family, clothes on our backs. I have medical care for myself and the rest of my family when necessary.  I don't own a car, but I can rent one every now and then.  In short, I have everything I need, and yet I am poor.

The poor will be with you always is a truism under this new definition.  There is no getting rid of the poor, because there will always those who have less, and who will have less capacity to buy things. 

This definition  was on my mind the other day when I read this article by Theodore Dalrymple.  The good doctor in this article describes the poverty he sees on a daily basis, and compares it to the experience of doctors from third world countries who come and work at his hospital for part of the year.  At first, the doctors from third world countries, who have first hand experience with real, crushing poverty, believe they have found a materialist paradise.  everyone is fed, and housed, and given medical care.  if they have no job, money is given to them anyway.  They are astounded.  Invariably, however, they lose that perception, and they begin to see something else.  A poverty of spirit and a sense of entitlement, a sense of being owed everything while owing nothing to the hand that feeds them, is the true poverty of the English poor.  A doctor from Manila eventually tells Dalrymple: "On the whole, life is preferable in the slums of Manila."

And then there is this individual, who carries a sense of entitlement against the facts, against logic, to the point that his philosophy of life is based upon seeking what he wants, when he wants it, for no other reason than because he wants it.

This individual's pathetic (non)philosophy, his lack of knowledge, and his unassailable sense of entitlement in the face of all truth and facts, make this one of the most depressing videos I have ever seen.

Our material possessions have not made us grateful for what we have:  It has made us feel we are entitled to more.  We bear no responsibility to anyone, but all are responsible to and for us.  We bear no guilt, but all must feel guilt that we exist and have less than some arbitrarily drawn line.  That, Dalrymple would say, is the true poverty of the West.


Left-footer said...

Fine, wise post, and I'm glad to have found your blog, via Redneck.

God bless!

Dim Bulb said...

Nice. I just linked to this post. It's listed under Sunday, October 16,and you might be interested in the post directly under it: Who Are The Poor?

Adrienne said...

I think exactly like you do. I have a home, a roof over my head that keeps me just as dry as a rich person's roof.

Here's what I don't have: a private jet, a yacht, three homes, a flat screen TV, a fancy phone, and an IPad. Guess what? I don't want any of those things so I guess I'm pretty dang rich...