[We need a human right response to poverty] RSA: Adanna Shallowe: Why we need an emergency response to poverty

I agree with Ms Shallowe that we need radical solutions to the problems of poverty in this country, but I don’t think an “emergency response” is the answer. An emergency response allows the wealthy to think of the poor as lesser citizens, and compromises the much stronger human rights frame she places around her argument. As she writes “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” this government and it’s supporters are engaged in hostile actions against the poorest among us. RSA research in Fife report locals as saying “the system’s out to screw us, keep us in our place.” How’s that possible? Because we are neither free, nor equal.

The reality is we’re born into a very specific set of economic circumstances, into a family, a community, a society, a country, and a world; and those conditions govern our progress from day one. In fact I would argue it goes back beyond day one. The governing factors go back nine months, minus several generations, as far as can be remembered. Those conditions define how we think, and our ability to prosper.

That said, we need to remember, current levels of poverty in this country are a direct result of Tory attempts to dismantle the welfare state; while also making the poorest pay for the sins of the richest. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are paying for the greed of a banking industry that crashed the economy in 2008. How can they do this? They do it by treating the poor as “other,” as something over there, to be feared and demonised, a burden to be survived. They think of us as feckless beggars. That’s why I don’t like the idea of an “emergency response” to poverty. We risk falling into a hole dug by the Tories, a bear-trap, that lets them treat the poorest as lesser citizens.

We are not victims of a natural disaster that destroyed a costal village, or flooded a delta, or swept away everything in a tidal wave. We are the product of an economic system that puts the accumulation of wealth above everything else. One that seeks to fatigue “you in every way – physically, mentally, (and) financially.” The emergency response frames poverty as if it were some kind of natural disaster. And disaster relief asks us to give cash so those who have lost everything can be helped. Charity is a short term solution, to an acute problem, and comes with a choice. You can choose not to give. We need solutions that are mandatory.

As Ms Shallowe writes, we need a universal basic income, and legislative recognition of social rights. But to achieve any of this we have to unpick the fabric of society. And that’ll be like unpicking the stitching of our trousers, then remaking them into a skirt, while trying not to flash your arse. It’s not easy but it is possible. The poor of this country are not charity cases deserving of handouts. We are full citizens who should be given the same help as a child born into a wealthy family.

This is a clumsy example but is the clearest way to explain the point. A child born into a wealthy family gets a private education. That child will do better than a child born into a family with no money. The former has a better chance of getting a well paying job, and living a longer life, than the child who lives without the instruction manual. I use the term instruction manual to make the point that the wealthy get to navigate the world they live in. The poor get no such instruction. We must learn for ourselves how to survive. While all the time being told, the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. As if it’s the natural way of things. It is not.

The narrative of “emergency response” should be replaced with one of equal rights. Poverty isn’t an economic issue, it’s an abuse of our human rights. As citizens of the fifth largest economy in the world we have the right to a fulfilling life. And in this world, the right to a life means having money. We are not poor through choice. We are poor though circumstance. Poverty is not a lack of character, it’s a lack of money. Give it to those who have none and they will use it. They will be happier, and more productive, and the world will be better for it. That’s how we should be judging our society. Not by how much extra you have in the bank. But how your actions improve the rights of the many not just the right of the few?


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