October 17 is International Day for the Eradication of Poverty
We should not need a special day to remind us to eradicate poverty in Australia. If we really wanted to do it, we would have only to dedicate to the task part of the money and ingenuity we spend on our armed forces and on subsidising people and firms already privileged. As a society, however, we are ambivalent.
On the one hand, we admire people who give their lives to serve the poor. Peter Claver and Mary MacKillop are two notable examples. The Salvos and the Vinnies, too, are respected more highly than churches more generally. But when people who draw close to the poor reflect on the causes of poverty, they are considered dangerous. The Brazilian Bishop Helder Camara famously remarked, ‘If I give food to the poor they call me a saint. If I ask why they are poor they call me a Communist.’ Personal generosity to the poor is commendable. Changing society in a way that removes poverty is suspect.
The reason for this strange inconsistency is that in most societies, the wealth of the powerful depends on the poverty of the weak. In many societies, slavery and the gross underpayment of workers underpin the wealth of large landowners and of investors in business. In Australia, the subsidies to wealthy investors are supported by the refusal to raise benefits to the people most disadvantaged in the community.
As this imbalance and injustice become more patent, they are often again obscured by distinctions made between the worthy and the unworthy poor. The latter, the most disadvantaged, are blamed for their condition. If they were to receive benefits in Victorian England they were forced to wear distinctive dress. In Australia, they are stigmatised by cashless cards and compulsory testing for drugs. These stratagems enable governments to describe the support given to people who are poor as a gift and not as a duty. They can then reduce it.
The existence of poverty in our society measures the value we place on human beings and their lives. If we value people by their charm, their ability to build easy relationships, by their success in work and making money, then people who are poor may be seen to fail on all counts. So they have no value. If we are to retain hope when live in poverty and to stay with people who are impoverished, we must value them highly for their simple humanity. They are our brothers and sisters and worthy of respect.
Respect is the bedrock of our engagement with vulnerable young people at Jesuit Social Services. We work with young people who often have known little respect in their lives and who might see themselves as worthless. Respect can break the cycle of lost hope.
The key steps to valuing people who are poor are, first, to change our personal attitude to poverty and to people who suffer from it. We must see poverty as an unnecessary affliction to be removed, not as the fault of those who suffer from it nor as an unavoidable feature of our world. Poverty is a sign that we have failed our brothers and sisters to whom we are responsible.
To change our personal attitudes, of course, means coming to know people, hanging in with them, feeling for them in what they suffer, and helping to educate those who are afraid or contemptuous of them. That may lead us to stop to chat with homeless people in the street, to visit people through the Vinnies and to protest against governments when they fail to support people who are poor.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan encourages us to reflect on how we respond to people who call on our compassion. It shames those who passed by the man who had been mugged. It continues to shame us as today we overlook the needs people who clearly need help. It also shows the importance of calling out unrecognised public attitudes. The largest challenge to the Good Samaritan was that the man he helped was one whom the Samaritans saw as natural enemies. It invites us to ask which Australians are members of groups that are considered dangerous or inferior, and to go out to them.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.