Saturday 23 February 2019

Caught in the poverty trap or simply irresponsible?

This blog first appeared in Malta Today 
When one takes the decision to go on TV to draw attention to one’s plight, the media spotlight might bring you much-needed sympathy and perhaps even propel the authorities into action, but it also has its downside. Once your story enters the public domain, everyone feels they are entitled to pass judgement and comment, and it won’t always be necessarily what you were expecting. The recent news feature on TVM about Graziella Bonello, the woman with six children living in a Valletta slum in appalling conditions, elicited very predicable reactions.

First, there was the usual knee-jerk reaction, almost like an automatic reflex, to ascertain whom to lay the blame on. The partisan finger-pointing immediately latched on to the salient detail of how long Graziella has been on the waiting list for social housing (ten years) followed by a quick calculation, which led to the conclusion that, in this particular case, it seems that successive administrations were at fault.

Then there was the automatic question: how can a country which is boasting a booming economy reconcile the existence of this type of poverty within the very same city which has just laid on an extravagantly lavish celebration to welcome Valletta18?

As viewers were given a first-hand glimpse on the evening news into what it means to live in squalor, one could practically feel the shock of the PBS journalist as, visibly dismayed and shaken, she made her way through the dark, dank rooms and then proceeded to interview the 33-year-old mother. But once the story was posted online, the comments from the public were a mixed bag of genuine empathy, cynicism and hard-nosed reality. I have to admit that some of the observations had also come, almost unbidden, to my mind as well. The fact that the ages of the six children ranged between the ages of two and ten meant that at least five of them were born while Graziella was waiting to be allocated social housing. This is not intended to cast aspersions on her, because I do not know the circumstances of her background, but it is a fact which cannot be ignored because it is staring us in the face. Coupled with the knowledge that for a while Graziella had to be treated for mental health issues at Mt Carmel and that the children had to be housed in a Children’s Home, the obvious question is: why did she keep on having more kids? Followed quickly by: and where is the father in all this?

Of course, it is easy to dismiss cases such as Graziella’s as being self-inflicted, and that she was irresponsible to keep bringing more children into the world, but in doing so we would be speaking from the privileged position of the comfortable, educated middle classes. How can we possibly know what brought her to this point? Researchers will tell you that birth control and family planning go hand in hand with education. Access to affordable contraception is another major factor. In fact, it is one of the paradoxes of human nature that those who are well-off tend to have only or or at the most two children, while it is not uncommon for those who are truly down and out to keep procreating even though they clearly cannot afford more mouths to feed.

But, if we set aside the vicious circle of trying to pinpoint ‘who is to blame’, the fact remains that Graziella (and other similar cases which have come to light) need practical long-term solutions. In the immediate aftermath of the story being broadcast, it was heartening to see that a group of women had decided that it was time to stop talking about this woman’s situation and spring into action to help her instead. They have come together to pitch in and provide Graziella with basic needs, especially for the children. The most urgent need, of course, which can only come from the Government itself, is to provide her and her family with decent accommodation. There is no excuse to justify why this family has been left to languish so long on the waiting list. Basic decency demands that top priority should be given to providing the social housing necessary, especially where there are children involved. Social justice for those who are most vulnerable should be the main item on any government’s agenda – even more so when it is a Labour Government.

However, I also feel that providing a safety net and social welfare for those who, like Graziella, have found themselves in dire straits, is not enough. Together with social justice, I am also a firm believer in helping people stand on their own two feet. It is never too late to receive an education or training; it is never too late to be taught basic life skills which will, in turn, ensure that the children do not get sucked into the same culture of dependency and the cycle of poverty. It is never too late to be provided with tools in order to become self-sufficient and independent. And finally, it goes without saying that fathers should be held responsible for their offspring as well, and deadbeat Dads should be made to support the children they have fathered.

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