Poverty isn’t bashful

Poverty is bashful says the Pope repeatedly in the first of the BBC’s Rethink essays. Rethink is a series of podcast reflections on the recovery from Coronavirus, and the world that we might aspire to creating once we escape our current constrained existence. Many hope that this is an opportunity to build a fairer world.

Far be it from me to suggest that, contrary to Catholic doctrine, the Pope is fallible — and I must admit that this particular Pope has far more direct experience of poverty than I do. So I won’t say that he is wrong; I will say that I disagree. Poverty is not bashful.

Poverty isn’t bashful. Rather, it is forced to the sidelines of our lives, it is ignored, it is chased from our streets by officious authority, squeezed into slums and ghettos, moved from public space by private closures — the gated communities of the wealthy or their ungated analogues POPS (the informal acronym for the privately owned public spaces that increasingly crowd our cities). It is hidden because it is inconvenient and difficult and so rarely reaches public or media attention. Companies hide it away by casualising their own workers, or outsourcing services or manufacturing, in effect pushing poverty down their supply chains, while squeezing what they pay suppliers making poverty wages more and more likely. That makes poverty less visible but no less present.

Poverty is forced into the corners because we hide it away, preferring not to know, preferring not to be embarrassed by the shame it inflicts on our comfort in the face of its discomfort. We collectively turn our eyes away, just as we do from the beggars on our streets or the sellers of the Big Issue (and other street papers around the world). In our comfortable lives it is more reassuring not to think of those on the margins, those who struggle day-to-day. These are not just the homeless, but also those struggling to put food on the table, dependent on free school meals and foodbanks — people whose ranks were growing ahead of the Covid crisis and have swollen still further during it. 

Poverty is not bashful. We choose to ignore it.

In part, we ignore poverty because we tend to fool ourselves that somehow most poverty is deserved. While some — perhaps — is, much arises from unavoidable circumstance. We so love to believe in meritocracy that we tend to ignore this unavoidable nature of much of the poverty around us.

One benefit of Covid 19 is that it has become harder to ignore others, it has become harder not to see the poor. Instead, it has become more clear how connected we are, how intimately our very chance to live is tied up with others. In a similar way, it has become harder for businesses to ignore the interests and basic needs of their workforce and the implications of how they are paid and treated. It has become almost a cliche among stewardship-minded investors that they will need to focus more in the next several months on the S (social) in ESG — meaning that they will increasingly challenge the companies in which they invest to do better in terms of how they treat their workforces. In part I suspect the reason for this new focus is guilt that they have previously given these issues only limited attention.

The Pope says we need to see the poor, that currently we don’t see them because we perceive them as only part of the landscape, just things. This I do agree with: we need instead to recognise their humanity. Companies need to recognise the human needs of their employees, and of the workers in their supply chains also. Just seeing more clearly would deliver to us all a greater sense of community, and would deliver a real opportunity to reduce the poverty and unfairness around us.

That would be a great, and a fairer, legacy of the Covid crisis. Let’s not be bashful.