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Poverty as violence – If you want to know the cost of economic freedom, ask the people who are paying for it.

Words Gerald Arbuckle.

Poverty is something we normally assume belongs to third world countries. We are the ‘lucky country’, a first world nation, so we assume that if poverty exists in the Australian culture if must be minimal.

But we can become blinded to how our culture can intimidate groups of people in our midst who have less access to power than we do. This self-protective dynamic can hide from us the fact that 800,000 children live in households where neither parent is employed, and Aboriginal peoples die 15 to 20 years younger than the Australian population as a whole.

On the basis of income, authorities distinguish between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty is defined by a set measure below which people experience completedestitution and so cannot meet even minimum needs for food and shelter. The United Nations Development Program has set one US dollar a day. Below that income threshold, people experience severe malnutrition and perilous levels of ill health. Such is the case in many so-called third world countries.

Relative poverty, on the other hand, is particularly relevant in assessing poverty in Australia. Those who experience this form of poverty have resources so below others in society that they are effectively excluded from socially-considered essential living arrangements and activities.

Using the definition of relative poverty, between 2 million and 3.5 million Australians are in poverty, according to the Senate Inquiry in 2004. One estimate is that about 20 per cent of households live on less than $400 a week; 16 per cent cannot afford to pay their gas and electricity bills on time; 12 per cent can only afford second-hand clothing.

All people have the right to work, to participate in society, and to grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Everyone should have opportunities to meet their responsibilities and to contribute to society. But structures of society can render these rights and responsibilities impossible for groups in society to achieve. This is what we call structural poverty. As the professor of social policy at the University of NSW, Peter Saunders, writes in The Ends and Means of Welfare, to be poor is ‘to be denied the chance to enjoy the consumption of goods, or the ability to achieve and maintain good health, or participate in social activities or other aspects of community life.’

People can become so trapped by their low income that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for many to break through its crushing circumstances. A financially poor family leads to a poor diet, inadequate or poor housing, limited access to health care and education, unemployment and underemployment because of a lack of qualifications, and reduced energy levels. People who are trapped in a cycle of poverty feel pushed to the margins, of no importance, even worthless. Most of us would at some stage experience these feelings, but people who are stigmatised by society, such as the poor and the mentally ill, are made to experience these feelings every day.  A sense of hopelessness can grip them as their sense of selfworth and self-respect disintegrate. Human dignity cannot be subjected to endless indignities and remain intact.

Violence is not about damaging or destroying things; it is about abusing people, crushing their spirit and making them submissive. It is not confined to killing or physical violence, but includes the creation of cultural conditions that materially or psychologically destroy or diminish people’s dignity, rightful happiness and capacity to fulfil basic material needs.

Cultures of violence, or ‘cultures of bullying’, intimidate people into submission or make them feel that they can develop no rational control over their lives. A contemporary power that intimidates poor people is the ideology of neo-capitalism, also known as the New Right. Over the last 30 years the revival of 19th century capitalism, also known as ‘market capitalism’, ‘neoclassical capitalism’ and ‘market liberalism’, has become pervasive; its assumptions unquestioned by its supporters.

Contained in the mythology of the neo-capitalist culture is the Social Darwinist assumption that the poor are what they are through their own fault; welfare services only make their poverty worse and reduce the incomes of the wealthy, so they must be reduced. Hence, there has been the ‘rolling back’ of social and welfare services. Former welfare recipients have been changed into a new working poor.

Peter Saunders argues that economic liberalism, despite all positive economic indicators, has contributed to an increase in unemployment, inequality, social dysfunction and alienation.

Consider the changes to health policy. It has gradually shifted from equity and social justice to cost containment and cost-effectiveness. For example, the Federal Government reneged on its pre-election promise not to interfere with Medicare and increase safety-net thresholds. This decision has a marked impact on people who are poor, as does the decreased emphasis on health promotion and education.

The New Right also puts an emphasis on ‘law and order’. So, political parties compete with one another to increase control and insist on more punishment, prisons and police numbers while downplaying rehabilitation of prisoners. The introduction of mandatory sentencing, zero tolerance policies and the compulsory detention of asylum seekers (especially women and children) all aim at restricting the judgements of judges and social workers.

The populations particularly singled out as most in need of control and retribution are the welfare poor, indigenous peoples, asylum-seekers, the unemployed and marginalised working-class youth.

Another intimidating force is the political denial of poverty.Successive governments and the media perpetuate the cultural myth of social and economic equality. If inequality is referred to it is generally seen as the victim’s problem and not a cultural issue. Since the acknowledgement of poverty does not attract votes, politicians significantly ignore it. Saunders comments: ‘The official response to poverty research has been to ignore it, to deny the existence of poverty or to argue  that the measurement ambiguities make estimates of poverty arbitrary and thus of no use for policy.’

The normalisation of violence also intimidates. In Australia, the manipulated vilification of anonymous refugees for political advantage, as occurred in the Children Overboard incident in 2001, was a particularly nasty form of violence. Yet the Government was well-supported in its actions. As an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald commented: ‘Most Australians…[were] not greatly troubled by the distortions and deceptions the Government resorted to…This is a great pity…[In] a democracy any lie is poison to the system, slow-acting perhaps, but dangerous nonetheless…[The truth’s] manipulation is especially insidious when it feeds racism, xenophobia and prejudice.’

Consider, finally, the normalisation of violence against the poor that occurs in parts of Australia through the gambling policies of governments. Indirect taxation through poker machines falls disproportionately on people who are poor; a disproportionate share of problem gamblers are drawn from lower socio-economic areas. And the disadvantaged socioeconomic geographical areas are particularly targeted by the companies owning these machines.

What are we to do? A significant event in the ministry of Jesus Christ describes the three definitions of poverty and guides us in how to respond. The evangelist Matthew describes the scene in which Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, is sitting on the roadside (Mt 10:46-52). Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by and he calls out in pain and hope for healing. As a beggar, Bartimaeus has a precarious income, below the average of those around him. His blindness also marginalises him from social contact with his family and former friends because blindness is thought to be caused by sinfulness, and to contact a blind person is to risk ritual pollution. The blindness was like HIV for us in the 1980s – a reason to exclude the sufferers from society. That is why the crowd scold him for daring to break the social taboos that prevent him from being part of society.

Jesus reacts in two inter-connected ways to this marginalisation. First, he breaks through the culture of exclusion by calling for Bartimaeus, contrary to the horrified protestations of the crowd, to come forward and speak to him. Second, by his very presence Jesus empowers Bartimaeus with hope that removes his deadly feeling of rejection and low self-esteem. So, there is structural or cultural change initiated by Jesus – something that Bartimaeus alone could not achieve – and at the same time a compassionate interaction with Bartimaeus. Then Bartimaeus becomes the agent of his own liberation from stigmatising exclusion and poverty.

The whole vision of Christ, which is one of compassion and justice, is a call to come out from behind the barriers of cultural blindness to poverty, its causes, and its devastating impact on people. Cultures of poverty need to be liberated. This requires collaborative action by us and by people who are poor. In imitation of Christ’s healing of Bartimaeus, it requires action for (that is, advocacy to remove the structures of poverty), and action with, (that is, action that empowers and does not further dehumanise). This responsibility rests on you and me.

‘Unrolling the scroll [Jesus found the place where it is written: The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives…to let the oppressed go free…’ (Luke 4:17-18).

This article was taken from the 2006 Spring issue of the Record (The Record – Spring 2006).

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St Vincent de Paul Society is a lay Catholic organisation working towards a more just and compassionate society.

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