The city is defined by the visibility of human life; the ways we advance our longing for and belonging within geographical space. But what happens when you become invisible to human life?
Around 5pm on July 7th, I sat outside a café in Shoreditch. For the first time, in a long time, I felt lonely. It was a day filled with multiple frustrations and I had not made the time to process these frustrations. I had also not spoken to anyone that day aside from strangers and this further compounded my emotion. So, I sat down outside a café in Shoreditch, to write and sit with this loneliness.
Soon after, a lady named Samantha approached me. She was homeless and asked me for spare change to pay for a hostel room. As I handed her a ten pound note, our eyes locked for the first time and the feeling of loneliness disappeared. I cannot remember much of July 7th but I can say, with certainty, that on that day I was seen. Someone saw me. When I handed the note to her, she burst into tears. Samantha explained that she had been begging for the whole day and I was the first person to look at her.
Our encounter reminded me of an artist whose work I curated for an exhibition on migration and belonging. The artist’s work was a series of photographs of her reflection in puddles of rain across London. She had taken these photographs when she was homeless and used them as a reminder that she was visible.
Since meeting Samantha, I have been reflecting on the logic of poverty alleviation and the way we see people living in poverty.
As I was writing this essay, I struggled between using the term ‘poor people’ or ‘people living in poverty’ because they articulate different aspects of the issue.
When we use the term ‘poor person’ we reduce the identity of that person to their socio-economic status. On the other hand, poverty is a pervasive condition because it greatly affects your autonomy and the way society determines your dignity. Human dignity, at least in the UK, is centred on how much one is worth to the economy. Therefore, an absence of material wealth significantly affects social perception of one’s worthiness.
The term ‘poor person’ also connotes permanency. We know that an extended period of living in poverty can affect subsequent generations in a variety of ways ranging from their socio-economic outcomes to reduced cognitive development. In this way, poverty can have long-term effects.
When we use the term ‘people living in poverty’, we reframe poverty as a condition, implying that there are other facets to the people besides their socio-economic status. On the other hand, it also implies that the people have chosen to live in poverty which is not entirely true. People who experience long-term poverty do not give up hopes of leaving poverty but rather learn to live within the conditions of their socio-economic status. It also reflects the difficulty of overcoming the systemic structures which cause poverty. Linda Tirado’s personal account of poverty explores this in excruciating detail.
The question of definition points to a bigger question about the role of agency in poverty.
In development, one way we see people living in poverty is as agents of change. From this perspective, we assume that the agent lacks a certain set of skills, rights or resources which has led to their condition. The solution is to equip them with what they lack, which subsequently changes their circumstances.
Acumen’s latest campaign, #SeePeople, argues for a change in our perceptions of people living in poverty. The campaign argues that acknowledging the agency and capability of people living in poverty is an important element of poverty eradication.
The process of change here can take two routes:
- Poverty caused by lack of access to X > Agent of change acquires access to X > Access changes external environment > Exit from poverty.
- Poverty caused by lack of access to X > Agent of change acquires access to X > Access changes internal behaviour of agent> Exit from poverty.
Another view is that if people living in poverty can change their circumstances, they are responsible for ending up there in the first place. An example of this argument is this interview (below) by former Republican Representative, Jason Chaffetz. In the interview, Chaffetz implies that people from low-income households in America would be able to afford healthcare if they chose to invest in their healthcare instead of buying iPhones.
Chaffetz’s argument perpetuates the fallacy that human beings are entirely rational creatures who sit down to make rational choices with certainty of the intended outcome. Plus, buying an iPhone is not the same as paying for health insurance.
I recall an incident, while studying at Oxford, where I was approached by a woman who wanted me to buy food for her family of five. Faced between the choice of paying her rent or her food, the woman chose the former and had to beg or visit food banks to get food for her family. I tried to persuade her to choose a bag of rice and beans instead of the three frozen pizzas she wanted, which, according to her, would make her family ‘fuller’.
At the time, I thought my cost-benefit analysis seemed efficient, dare I say, even better than her option. What my ‘well thought-out’ analysis failed to include were:
- the costs of additional ingredients to make the rice and beans
- the energy costs required to cook the food
- knowledge on how to cook rice and beans
- the psychological and physical labour required to cook when your time is spent trying to secure basic needs for your immediate future
- the assumption that she would still have access to her home in the period it took for a family of five to eat a 1kg bag of rice and beans
- her personal preference for pizza over rice and beans.
My ‘analysis’ was based on the assumption that long-term planning was the best approach to inform this decision. However, surviving in the short-term was her priority, thinking how best to maximise her options, until her meeting with her Social Worker in 72 hours when she would find out whether she could receive welfare support.
Both Acumen and Chaffetz recognise the agency of people living in poverty albeit for different reasons. So, my question to you is, how do you see people who are living in poverty? How has this affected your work in social change?
Post a reflection below or tweet me your reflections @Marion_AO.