Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Perceiving and Getting out of Poverty

In a statistical report by Euro Stat under the title "Combating poverty and social exclusion" (Edition 2010) can be found two different definitions of poverty since it can be either relative or absolute / extreme.

While at the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen in 1995, a definition of absolute or extreme poverty was used to stipulate:

‘… a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information’ – therefore, mainly depending on access to a range of services.

the EU’s social inclusion process uses a relative definition of poverty that was first agreed upon by the European Council in 1975:
‘… people are said to be living in poverty if their income and resources are so inadequate as to
preclude them from having a standard of living considered acceptable in the society in which
they live. Because of their poverty they may experience multiple disadvantages through
unemployment, low income, poor housing, inadequate health care and barriers to lifelong
learning, culture, sport and recreation. They are often excluded and marginalised from
participating in activities (economic, social and cultural) that are the norm for other
people and their access to fundamental rights may be restricted’.

For more information:
Eurostat, the statistical office of the European Union,
5, rue Alphonse Weicker
2721 Luxembourg

E-mail: estat-user-support@ec.europa.eu

Departing from such a definition or compound of characteristics to make up poverty, there is to be noted already one difference between visible and invisible poverty. Altogether there are 'heros of unemployment' since they hide from society their true state of affairs. They do it to preserve their human dignity. Thus it is also a matter of how poverty is perceived and responded to in order to ensure that people get out of poverty before too late, the world literally collapses on them.

Perception is a matter of being at one place in society and observing what becomes a pattern. Sometimes there are organised children washing windows at traffic lights with the men pulling the strings waiting in the background. Others use such a system to collect information which restaurants are frequented by customers, which ones are not. There are as many sub-systems in the world of the poor as there are many different layers in the society of the rich and of the middle class. Like in jail the various degrees of organisation reflect who is in charge and who has to obey strict orders if way down at the bottom of the ladder. Literally the poor folks divide up amongst themselves who can sleep where while not everyone is allowed to beg in that street as it belongs to just that special group. Naturally this sub system of organisation can be overturned anytime by a police raid, some falling sick to disappear while newcomers prove to be tougher than anyone else. A prime need is to protect oneself against the heat as much as the cold, the hunger and the various kinds of sicknesses. Above all everyone has to know how to protect him- or herself done best by not getting involved in a wrong fight. The lack of teeth tell their own story as to what mistake was made that one evening when thinking it was possible to pick a fight and not realizing the guy had five friends waiting in the background ready to give anyone a thorough beating if daring to challenge their authority.

At another level poverty is signaled by someone being without real friends. Human solidarity is needed as much as recognition by the others. No one is an island, all need someone else even if only to lean against at times and not to be informed when will come the next 'food on wheels' convey organised by the local charity. Without anyone close by these people depend upon social institutions like the church, charity organisations, Red Cross and even hospitals. There is always an increase in patients coming from the low end of society around Christmas and New Year's Eve time. It is better to get some food in a hospital than trying to sleep underneath the bridge around this time of the year and besides most of the poor folks are stricken by a remarkable note of Romanticism. Maybe their sentimentality brought them into this predicament in the first place. Even when drunk they would remember her sweet voice if only to get suddenly angry that she had left him for someone else. There is always some hidden pain readily visible for anyone looking closer as to what threw them out of the curve.

Underground in Paris Metro                                        @hf

In terms of literary descriptions of poverty Orwell impressed with his account in "Down and Out in Paris and London". While in Paris as journalist he had to wait for money to be forwarded to him by his editor. Orwell made the experience what it is like not to have any money in a city like Paris. First he pawned his winter coat for some money and when that was finished he took up a job way down in the cellar of a big hotel with a large restaurant. Alone being underground and faced by countless dirty dishes left him wondering about those waiters who would curse their customers out front but once through the swing doors separating kitchen and dining room they would be suddenly all smiles. He was shocked at this insight into a dishonesty of the waiters. He saw who they could lie in the faces of the people sitting at the tables while despising them fully once out of sight.

Poverty is accompanied by this pain of comparison insofar as the others have it better while one does not know even how to exist in such a company. Kafka in his letters to Felice when she was in Frankfurt a. Main imagined how she was moving through the crowd made up of all these successful business men and bankers. He confessed that he could never exist amongst them and added as a matter of fact he can only exist between the lines he writes. Kafka never made it past the doorman or could cross over to the other side to marry the woman even he professed to love her. He compared himself to a sparrow on a balcony when someone has thrown a crumb of bread towards him but he does not dare to pick it because there is this shadow of a person too close for comfort.

Fear is sometimes a bigger barrier than what can be imagined. It prevents many people from doing the most simple thing, namely to get rid of their shyness or rather shame like taking off a coat and step into a warm restaurant when it is freezing outside. The fact that only those who can afford to pay for their dinner enter while the rest stay outside shows what invisible walls exist to keep out those who are not willing to pay a prize for what they can get in exchange, namely a dinner at a table with candles, wine and a waiter all smiles serving whatever has been ordered according to the menu.

When Orwell finally got his money and went back to London, he saw another system of poverty. This time he described how social services provided for one night accommodation for the homeless. It was a strict rule that they could stay for just one night. When entering the compund they had to strip naked. Then someone took a hose and washed them down like a horse or a car. Afterwards they were given a basket to put their clothes in and instead were given some kind of uniform like entire for the night. Then they were assigned their sleeping place, given a small dinner and then the lights went out. Everything was under strict control. Due to this rule that they could stay only for one night they developed the system of wandering to the next home providing accommodation for one night. As a consequent they entering unconsciously a system of rotation. It took them around the entire country before one day they would return to the first place where they had stayed for one night. Orwell made the comment in this way the system made sure poverty was circulated and kept effectively for the well off citizens out of sight. This is why real poverty is not seen but more hidden. It should not smell, make any noise or demands as the established society wishes not to be reminded that there are still people whose needs have not been fulfilled when everyone else gathers in the evening around a table loaded with plenty of food making abundance into a sign of richness but equally thoughtlessness with regards to those who have nothing.

Since Orwell, but in reminder of Charles Dickens, the UK has seen many kinds of poverty striken people. Kenneth Loach provoked with his film 'Cathy come home' an outcry as to what was happening to those made by various misfortunes homeless. The film prompted the creation of 'shelter'. As an organisation it aimed to provide homes for the homeless. It was a huge success during the first years of operation as the film had touched a nerve and a critical conscience became alive that in a society of abundance this should not be really the case that people were forced to live out on the streets.

Poor people end being marginalised because they know no longer where to go to make a stand. As if they fear the conformity of the successful ones, they withdraw but do not know how to develop an alternative. Thus they become "lustlos" (without a drive to do something) and largely inactive. All what they can do most of the time is to become beggars. They can equate only survival with money and nothing else. They do not know how to earn money in any different way.

Amongst the Roma in Athens the artist Maria Papadimitreou who worked with them to create together a temporary museum to show how differently they use space with the back of the truck practically an extension of their living and bedroom, made out three categories: there are the nomads amongst the Roma, the ones who travel around and never stay for any length of time at one spot; there are those who engage in all kinds of money making rackets from drugs to trafficking in women and children; and then there are the ones who do take up a more permanent residency on the outskirts of the city and there they take up a special business e.g. collecting old furniture, restoring it and then selling them in the districts of the city where the rich live and also antique shops eager to buy off them what they have refurbished. This third category is also involved in driving through the streets to see where special items have been discarded, mainly metal objects which can be reused and therefore a source of money. Practically this means they are recycling that what others would simply throw away.

Man searching in rubbish bin on platia at beginning of Dafnomili in Athens Once he got involved he took down his rucksack and went to business in a more thorough way. Oct. 2010 @hf

Again such phenomenon underlines the fact that a key feature of the consumer society is the huge waste it produces. People live off it not only in Cairo. Like scavangers they search in the rubbish thrown away for all sorts of things. There prevails in midst of European cities this phenomenon to be seen daily. It is always an indication of a crisis to be noticed onhand of the number of people checking the waste bins for possible items they can either use for themselves or else out of which they can make some money. Therefore it is not surprising to see also an industrious man collecting all the beer bottles a football crowd or some other large gathering would leave behind since many people just discard the items once it has been used and is no longer of any direct use to them.

Others become poor as their education and family background do not propel them into society but makes them become losers. They may well be far advanced in their thinking about society and life, but for many reasons they could not enter a process by which they could simply make money. Some of them end up being taxi drivers although they have a Ph.D. while others never qualified in a formal way and still they have invaluable resources, if only society and fellow citizens could tap into them. There are some highly exceptional people who live in all poverty nevertheless a rich life in terms of what they imagine and enjoy. As a matter of fact they would smile most when hearing about the birth of a child or someone having done something great like writing a book about a theme which concerns not only a specific interest group but humanity. They sense what is important, what is not.

That means social categories linked with poverty as described by Charles Dickens or later by George Orwell are entailed in perceptions based on a further going ethical demand not to be indifferent about those described, seen and experienced as being poor. The ethical base of such a perception can be a feeling of human solidarity but also a deep sense for social fairness, if not social justice.

While poverty in times of industrialisation can be described even by Vincent Van Gogh when painting the potato eaters or else those who are stranded in big cities but still retain the good, old stories in their hearts, the 21st century with its knowledge economy and even 'economy of experience' entails quite other dimensions of poverty. These have to be traced if poverty can be understood both as physical and mental deprivation. Once that sets in a person can easily feel not as a human being, but as someone determined by other forces and therefore unable to alter by him- or herself the external condition and the internal predisposition. Both are so negative that no alternate seems possible.

Measuring poverty or the risk to fall below existential minimum

The Commission has established a series of criteria to communicate a sense as to where people find barriers when trying to enter society and to develop further their potentialities. Most of these criteria are naturally linked to material conditions. It includes as overarching measure the GNP and in terms of an overall growth or not, is used to establish the average income as measure to establish the poverty line below which a person would face difficulties surviving in a society like ours. Unfortunately the latter does depend almost exclusively on money and financial transactions to make a living. Thus in a recent study in Germany aiming to establish the risk of falling below the poverty line some cities like Leipzig reached 28% or one in four persons; cities like Munich and Stuttgart fared better but still the average in Germany is around 22% of the population. It is known that Germany has come under criticism by its European partners for driving an extreme low wage policy, thereby exporting a great deal but not balancing this with an increase in demand. Alone the fate of unemployed as affected by Hartz IV, a scheme devised under the Social Democratic-Green government of Schroeder and Fischer (not me) can force someone to work for one Euro per day.

These measures aim to lower the number of unemployed but it does not resolve the problem of poverty which goes with it. And as we know someone with hardly an extra money to spend will not go to the theatre, entertain friends with a dinner at home nor undertake trips. The person's radius of activities will be defined what he or she can do that does not cost anything or not much. Often that is reduced to sitting on a park bench or at home in one's room the rent for which is being paid by the basic security system and therefore deprives the person of any sense of dignity and self esteem since unable to sustain his or her own life. The inhibitions which go with this reflect something else not to be named the poverty line but the cutting edge of success and failure. For each time a person tries something, he or she will most likely give up even before entering the office to seek employment. This turn around before having tried out something happens because the person has internalized already too many failures. Without an inner recognition of being valuable to oneself and others, and that depends upon the recognition through others, no person can be expected to be a hero and overcome such hidden self denials. All this and more I would consider to be a part of 'poverty of experience'. It is naturally an important question whether or not this is a cause of or the consequence of poverty itself.

As these measurements are never perfect, and no doubt the European Commission does recognize this, some other terms have been added to circumscribe where the problem lies. A key term is, therefore, access to society in the way of obtaining a job or if without even in the long run of interest is that the strategic vision of the EU for 2020 is to make every unemployed into something like an artist who can make use of his or her creative talents when it comes to surviving. To this underlining trend to revise measurements of poverty, itself linked to social exclusion as emphasized by the importance given to accessibilities, I would like to add a few thoughts and address what I feel has been left out, but which impoverishes our societies tremendously, namely the 'poverty of experience'. Namely you cannot just consume and be without a memory base of the experiences made, if accessibility is to include also the knowledge gained over time. Especially when the European Commission itself postulates that a competitive society in todays global world has to be based on the knowledge economy, then we are not speaking about the need to gain in experience with regards to how to change the shoes of horses as did in the past the black smith but how to relate to the epistemological orientation of society when focused on knowledge gained out of various sources, including a 'virtual reality' making it ever more difficult to ascertain real time and real place as focus of attention in terms of what we experienced at that place and therefore know what is the situation there. Given the 'poverty of experience', this holds only in a very limited way.

See article by Akash Kapöur, „Changing poverty's parameters“, International Herald Tribune, Friday, August 13, 2010

European measures:

Today the European Commission launches the Young Reporters Against Poverty contest – an invitation to all journalism students in the EU Member States to send in a report on development issues to be selected to cover the European Development Days in Brussels in December. The final winners will be invited to a field trip to one of the Commission's partner countries in Africa.

"The media has a very important role to play: reports are critical to raise awareness, to mobilise and to put development on the political agenda. I have great expectations on the creativity and engagement of the young reporters and I wish them the best of luck in the competition", Andris Piebalgs, European Commissioner for Development, said.

The Young Reporters Against Poverty contest is an initiative targeting journalism students in the EU Member States with the purpose of raising their interest for development issues. From today until 29 October, the journalism students are invited to submit a written or radio report on EU and development. Based on this report and on the application form, 33 selected applicants will be invited to participate in a workshop during the European Development Days in Brussels in December.

More info: Young Reporters Against Poverty website
Credits (c) European Union, 2010

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