This article first appeared on Malta Today
Every time the topic turns to poverty, you are bound to get those who dismiss the very notion.
Poverty? What poverty? They ask, as they point to all the affluence and shops, cafes and restaurants bursting with people spending money and all the signs which, on the surface, seem to point to a people who are doing very well.
Yes, undoubtedly, some are doing extremely well, some are comfortably off, others are just about keeping their head above water, and then you get …the rest. It is when we come to defining who makes up this demographic of ‘the rest’ that things get sticky, because you will inevitable come across comments which blame the poor themselves for not working hard enough to get out of their situation. Granted there are those who are happy to swim through life just getting by, with no work commitments, no responsibilities, and capable of surviving purely through State handouts, while knowing how to avail themselves of every social benefit which is announced.
Is there abuse? Yes, there probably is and it is one of the reasons that those on welfare inevitably get a bad rap. It is always those who are flagrantly abusing the system who are held up as prime examples of “look, you see? This is how they are squandering our taxes”.
But for every one of these examples, there are many others where the person caught in the poverty trap is neither a bum, nor a scrounger, nor a deadbeat, but has simply been less fortunate than most. And if you think that luck has nothing to do with it, you are mistaken. It is purely a fluke what kind of family we are born into, and I’m not speaking merely about financial means (although that helps) but about a family which believes in education, which pushes its children to better themselves and be ambitious, and which gives positive feedback when their offspring succeed. Contrast that with a family which constantly tears you down, which rubbishes and mocks your every dream, which fills your head with negative messages until you ultimately start to believe them yourself until you come to the conclusion that, hey, maybe they are right, and I’m worthless and will never amount to anything?
And isn’t it simply a matter of life’s throw of the dice whether you are born into a regular family or born into one which is already rife with social problems, dysfunctional dynamics, or one which is already involved in the criminal world? What are the prospects of a crack baby born to a heroin addict mother who has to prostitute herself to support her habit? The child can be taken away, and then what? Foster care is very limited so a life in a children’s home awaits. If that is not a cruel destiny I don’t know what is. Yes, that child might make it despite all odds, but just think of how much more they will have to strive against, when compared to other children who are born into the comfort of a secure home where they are loved and wanted.
Coming from a family with financial means does not necessarily mean being born with a silver spoon in one’s mouth, but being born into a situation where parents are not spendthrifts, where they plan and budget and make sure there is enough food on the table and money to pay for bills before frittering away a pay cheque on unnecessary luxuries. That kind of upbringing is essential for children to learn how to prioritise and it is a lesson in monetary values which can last a lifetime. Contrast having parents who can equip their children with life skills as opposed to those who have never learned any themselves.
It is luck, yes, to know that there is a cushion and safety net back at home, if you as a teenager or young adult find yourself broke, knowing you can knock on your parents’ door and find the financial help you need rather than being turned away because they are even more broke than you. Even as one goes through adulthood, when life gives you hard knocks either through illness, or divorce, or unemployment, isn’t it a matter of pure luck if one has family to turn to for emotional and moral support, who can help you out during a rough patch, rather than shutting the door in your face and telling you, sorry, you are on your own?
Think of yourself and of the times when you have ever turned to your family for help and ask yourself, where would you be had they not helped out in some way, even if it was just to take care of your children when you went back to work? And while it is true that free childcare has alleviated this problem for many working mothers, it is still very often the grandparents who are collecting the children from nursery, or school. As the nuclear family becomes more and more fragmented because of marriages breaking down, the struggle has increased as never before as a two income household suddenly ceases to exist, and one or both households end up struggling separately to maintain the lifestyle they once had.
There are other mitigating factors which determine one’s fate in life: sometimes it is simply a matter of being born with an uncrushable spirit which keeps moving forward no matter what curveballs the world throws at you. For, isn’t it a matter of luck that one person can find the strength to keep battling against all adversities, while another is plunged into deep despair, depression and hopelessness, unable to ever quite pull themselves together?
Of course, today’s poverty cannot be spoken about without putting it within the context of the obscene rates being charged for renting, with people being charged just to live in a room, and having to put up with the indignity of living in a washroom or a hastily made-up garage. So imagine, being down on your luck as it is and suddenly being faced by skyrocketing prices even for the most dismal areas in Malta. This is the reality of the situation facing those who, for one reason or another, cannot afford to buy their own home.
And as isolation and loneliness increase in a world where ‘thinking of number one’ is more important than compassion and empathy, it is no wonder that poverty, both real and spiritual, too is on the rise