Archive Article: The Poor Will Always Be With Us
February 28, 2009

Tony Abbott, the Minister for Employment has recently been in the news regarding his comments on why people are poor. The ensuing debate over poverty then generated more heat than light over what should be done about ending poverty.

Mr Abbott was reported in a television programme as saying that “We can’t abolish poverty because poverty, in part, is a function of individual behaviour. We can’t stop people drinking. We can’t stop people gambling. We can’t stop people having substance problems”. As it says in the Bible, the poor will always be with us.

The President of the Australian Council of Social Service then accused Mr Abbott of overlooking one of the major causes of poverty, namely, unemployment. Rev Bill Cruise of Ashfield Uniting Church then drew attention to the plight of the “working poor” – people who in employment but whose pay is so low that they remain poor.

And so it went on.

The problem is that all these fine people are correct. The explanations may apply to some poor people at various times.

There is no one single cause of poverty and so there can be no single explanation for it. For example, some people are born in poverty, live their life knowing only poverty, raise their children in poverty, and then die in poverty. To use a current expression: they live in “no go” zones which are also “no exit” zones. However, others start out well in life with a lot of advantages but then develop some problems and need some assistance – but then they do come good again. Still others begin life in “no go” area but do find an “exit” route and they never look back.

Coincidentally I have been reading a biography of someone who was an expert, so to speak, on poverty: Napoleon Hill. Half a century ago, Hill wrote the book “Think and Grow Rich”, which remains a bestseller to this day. It is one of the major “self-help” books on encouraging people to have a positive mental attitude.

The biography of Napoleon Hill, “A Lifetime of Riches” by Michael Ritt and Kirk Landers”, explains how Hill had a roller coaster life, beginning in abject poverty in the eastern United States, then acquiring wealth, then losing it, then acquiring more wealth and then losing it, and so it went on. Thus, depending on when a survey was taken, Hill was either a “poor person” or “rich person”, according to where the roller coaster was.

Well: where to from here? First, I am not sure that much is to be gained about making sweeping statements trying to explain poverty. We need to learn to live with the fact that the causes vary from one person to the next.

Second, we need to find out what works. Not everyone remains in poverty. Some people escape. Thus we need to see what schemes, processes etc work. For example, in some developing countries there is the Grameen Bank, which began in Bangladesh. It lends money only to the poorest of the poor (usually illiterate women). But it has a very high rate of success.

Finally, we need to see which organizations work. To use another Biblical term: “by their fruits shall ye know them”. Wesley Mission has a good record of working with people to escape poverty. Thus, the focus on poverty really ought to be based on how to assist successful organizations like Wesley Mission to help people escape poverty.