“The poor will be with you always…”

Introduction

Most of us will easily recognise the title of this piece as a text taken out of its contextual basis from the New Testament. The story in the Gospel of Mathew chapter 26 occurs after Jesus has risen Lazarus from the grave and a poor woman anoints Jesus’ feet in a costly ointment. The disciples thought the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This is when Jesus makes the above statement. I’m not a biblical scholar or so I won’t be getting into a theological discourse about this except ask: do the poor really need to be with us always?

The quick answer is no.

Anti-Poverty Week

Anti-Poverty Week is held every year in October. COVID-19 has meant many of the usual activities for Anti-Poverty week, like so many other things, did not occur or were conducted in a restrained manner. For many of us it is likely the week passed without us even noticing. However, this is an opportunity to reflect on the nature of poverty and for us to take action to end poverty.

The Extent of Poverty

Approximately 1 in 10 people, globally, live in extreme poverty. This equates to less than $2 (US) per day to live on. Up to 25% of the world’s population survive on just over $3 (US) per day. These figures are hard to comprehend. But action is being taken. As a result of political action and economic cooperation over a billion people have escaped poverty since 1992. All it takes is the political will to take action and not to blame people for their circumstances. Simple really.

The United Nations has a goal to end extreme global poverty by 2030. This is the UN Sustainable Development Goal #1. This is estimated to cost about $175 billion per year. This might seem like a lot but it is less than 1% of the combined income of the richest countries in the world. (https://antipovertyweek.org.au/about/faq/)

In Australia, it is estimated that 13.2% of our population lives in poverty i.e. below the poverty line. The poverty line is calculated as 50% of median household income. In 2015/16 this was $433 a week for a single adult or $909 for a couple with two children in 2015-16. The impact of COVID-19 has certainly increased that number with more to be added once the government removes the temporary financial support measures introduced as an immediate response to the pandemic.

In 2018 it was estimated that 64% of young unemployed people who relied on Youth Allowance were living under the poverty line and 55% of people who receiving Newstart lived under the poverty line. In short, payments made by the Australian government to assist during times of unemployment and difficulty didn’t even remove people from poverty but rather entrenched them in poverty. This explains why there has been a huge push from the social sector for the assistance payments to be increased so that people are not placed in a position of not being able to pay their rent or buy enough food for the week.

No One Needs to Live in Poverty

As I’ve stated above there is enough wealth in our world to alleviate not only poverty in Australia but also the whole world. No-one needs to live in poverty. So, why does it continue?

On the surface the answer is simple.

In 2018 Oxfam reported that there were 2,043 billionaires in the world with a new billionaire coming into existence every two days. The wealth of this group of people grew by $762 billion. This was enough money to end extreme poverty seven times over.

Oxfam made several suggestions,:

  • Governments to limit shareholder and executive returns
  • Provide workers with a living wage
  • Eliminate the gender pay gap
  • Raise taxes on the wealthy.

Of course, little of this will occur. Part of the reason relates to the proliferation of conservative right wing governments clinging to a failed neo liberal agenda of “trickle down” economics. In Australia, this has resulted in lowering taxation in the hope that businesses and the wealthy will plough the extra funds back into business, raise wages and employ more staff. This has never happened and in unlikely to ever happen. Basically, those with wealth will just save any bonus money and not redistribute their wealth unless they are forced to do so.

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the wealth of the billionaire class. The wealth of this group has now increased to 10.2 trillion dollars. More than enough to end poverty. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/oct/07/covid-19-crisis-boosts-the-fortunes-of-worlds-billionaires

One of our problems is that capitalism entrenches the desire to make more and more money and to redistribute less of it. Those with this amount of money often hold sway over governments and political parties. Our hope is that a loud community voice will find the ear of some politicians and force change.

There is a need to lobby government hard to increase benefits to those in need and reduce social/economic inequality. I would suggest the reason why support payments have been kept low and there are a number of penalties levied against recipients if they fail to meet requirements is a view that being unemployed or poor is your own fault. You simply need to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. You are in poverty because you haven’t tried hard enough. Additionally, this is fuelled by a contemporary version of Christianity based on a philosophy that people are prosperous as a reward from God for hard work. Conversely, if you are not prosperous you have not worked hard enough.

This is a deficit view of people and should be countered where possible. Everyone has gifts, talents and assets, including those in poverty. These assets can be connected and mobilised to enrich both the life of the individual and the community. However, it is almost impossible to do this if you can’t guarantee the next meal or a roof over your head tonight because you are in poverty. Act to relieve or remove poverty and then it is easier to leverage the gifts people have to enrich our community.

Back to the Quote

I’m not a biblical scholar or of religious persuasion, but the word Jesus is reputed to use in regards to the poor would have been known to his disciples. They are based in a verse from the book of Deuteronomy 15:11 which says:” For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore, I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy, and to your poor in your land.’”

It’s simply not good enough to recognise there is poverty. We need to act to support those in poverty.

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