it's international women's day today, and i attended an event in garden place where a number of women addressed the question posed in the title to this post. below is one of the speeches, given by rachel simon-kumar, a senior lecturer at the university of waikato. i am putting it up here with her permission.
If I were to ask you why we should give a damn about poverty, it is likely that your answers may go something like this:
• It is a matter of principle, of social justice
• In our [democratic] society we CANNOT allow such poverty
• The poor are also citizens
We might even go on to say that “if we don’t care for our poor, it will affect the rest of our society” – we show up in negative statistics as a nation. We are paraded internationally as failing to do our duty to our more vulnerable members. The very existence of poverty would also show up our values as a society – about how we value, or rightly undervalue, women, the care of children, our elderly and sick – OUR NON-PRODUCTIVE segments, and our ability to tolerate these.
THESE are called Morality arguments MADE ON BEHALF OF THE POOR, arguments that are based on the principles of social justice and fairness. The problem with Morality arguments is that they can easily become arguments of CHARITY. What we are really saying is that The poor don’t really deserve welfare and support but because WE have our values, we can choose to support and change their conditions. We must be charitable to those who are in need. They are also very different from the arguments made in favour of “productive” segments of society. The productive segments make any claims on the basis of RIGHTS because they earners and contributor, not Morality or CHARITY. [as you can imagine] Morality or charity arguments are weaker than the arguments of rightful demands
There is another – less widely discussed – reason why we should think and care about poverty. And another principle that should be the basis for our arguments when we make a case on behalf of the poor.
Let me do that by drawing your attention to the recession we are in now. Started in 2008 with the collapse of the big banks, insurance companies and credit companies, especially in the United States, but which soon spread around the world. We now know [and there is still a lot we DON’T know about the recession] that these banks made their money lending easy credit at exorbitant rates to low and middle income people who could not, in reality, afford the over inflated, bloated house prices. And when the poor could no longer afford their mortgages, they lost their houses; they were repossessed by the banks. It was when the majority could not keep up this cycle of repayment, that the financial bubble collapsed. They didn’t do anything illegal – law and policy actually supported this process - it is called de-regulation.
There is an important lesson we should learn from the recession – first of all, isn’t it ironic? THE POOR HELPED CREATE WEALTH. In other words, the dispossessed actually creates prosperity. And this is not unique to the United States. We now know that there are retail companies make money because of sweat shops, or by displacing indigenous peoples and destroying valuable natural resources. And here in New Zealand, we know that tax cuts and GST increase is experienced differently by high income and low income households.
The “poor” contributes to wealth. And just as the poor contributes to wealth, in turn, that wealth creates poverty. There is something very wrong with this picture. And there is something even more wrong with the poor having to make MORALITY or charity arguments when they are actually contributing to wealth creation.
And here is the reason why we should care about poverty – because it is a window to deeper inequalities and distortions in our society. Poverty doesn’t just happen, it happens because we have systems that allow it to happen. That inequality is not something that affects only the poor, but all of us. It reminds us that the rules that make up our society are often not transparent or fair and that we do not all have the same knowledge or understanding of how things work. It’s amazing what we did not know about the financial sector until it went belly up. It was only when the crash came that we learnt about how our money was being used and how ordinary people were being set up in the financial bubble. In the same way, we don’t know or have a say when services are removed or taxes are imposed or when basics of life are harder to reach or when people are branded and labelled.
And we should give a damn about poverty because it is not the problem but a symptom of something wrong at a deeper level. The lessons of poverty are that if we don’t all share an equal voice in our society, we can all become indispensable.