In 1992 the UN declared 17 October as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. We sometimes tend to think that the battle against poverty is one that is fought in far-off countries and that poverty is principally a third world problem. As such, we risk neglecting the serious social, psychological and physical harm that poverty causes within our own society. While the lives most of us live have become more luxurious and comfortable compared to those of our ancestors, we don’t seem to be able to eradicate poverty.
Last year, 60.000 Flemish families had to ask The Public Center for Social Welfare financial aid because they could no longer pay their rent and electricity bills. Each week, 230 families are evicted from their homes. A recent study also reveals that one in eight children in Flanders grows up in poverty. In Brussels, things are even worse. According to the yearly Brussels Poverty Report, 30% of people living in Brussels have an income below the poverty risk line. One in four children live in a home where nobody earns a salary. Those figures are unworthy of a truly free and just society.
Poverty is often a vicious circle and rarely merely one’s own fault. It is quicksand from which it is hard to escape. Social justice implies that we try to pull people out of the quicksand, and child poverty is perhaps the greatest challenge that we face in our quest for social justice. Children are by definition innocent and deserve our help, for nobody has any merit and nobody is guilty of the place and circumstances in which he is born. Neither do those one in eight Flemish children growing up in poverty. It is difficult to maintain that we live in a just society, when child poverty rates remind us of the grim reality that life is for many children, not only in faraway countries, but also here.
Poverty and unfreedom
Not only social justice, but also another pillar of our democratic, open society erodes due to poverty: freedom. ‘Freedom is only cheap when you have money’, a Dutch pop band once rightly sang. Even if freedom is not a commodity that can be bought, you do need money to enjoy it. It is therefore no coincidence that money is freedom is such a popular phrase and probably quite telling that the Americans have the word liberty written on their coins. When money is freedom – or a precondition of being free – then poverty is unfreedom. That is a pivotal idea in the thought of Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1998. And it is an equally important idea in the capabilities approach, as propagated by the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Poverty obstructs individual freedom. Socio-economic deprivation limits a person’s ability to fully develop himself, to be in charge of his own life and successfully pursue his own dreams.
The privilege of freedom
According to the capabilities approach, freedom is not merely the absence of external constraints. To be free means to have the ability to set the course of one’s own life. This ability consists of a wide range of internal and external capabilities. Qualitative education, decent housing, access to health care, and a social network that pushes you forward instead of dragging you down. These are all preconditions of freedom, and they all require money. A democratic welfare state will try to minimize the individual cost of those preconditions, but in other countries the prices of qualitative housing and education can be toweringly high.In a society where people cannot afford these things, freedom is no longer a right of all, but a privilege of some.
Poverty not only limits individual freedom, it also risks undermining freedom as a pillar of the polis, as a value upon which our society as a whole is built. Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously captured this idea in his State of the Union in 1944: “True individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.”
It would of course be incorrect to claim that anti-democratic attitudes and hostility to values such as freedom, tolerance and solidarity can only be found among the hungry and unemployed. There have been many rich and privileged individuals, who have supported the most horrendous dictatorships in the past. Social, political, economic and intellectual elites have often been the driving forces of those dictatorships and regimes of intolerance and suppression. But in order to be successful, those elites depend on the social discontentment and hunger for security among the underprivileged. The dictatorships promise to eliminate insecurity and deprivation, but the price to pay is freedom. The greater the socio-economic deprivation and the greater the feeling of insecurity, the more likely it is that people will be willing to pay that price. For it is difficult to really value freedom, when all you got from freedom is inordinate misery.
Such a mechanism was also observed by the German philosopher Max Scheler. Scheler maintained that social resentment and a hostility to freedom is greatest not in societies where there is blatant oppression and inequality, but in dilapidated democracies and societies that claim to be free and just, but where freedom and justice are unavailable to many because of structural conditions and socio-economic deprivation. Thus, tackling poverty not only increases individual freedom, it also reduces social resentment; the kind of resentment that has fuelled dictatorships in the past and that motivates people to abandon freedom for the sake of security.
As a consequence, one cannot convincingly claim to be a free and just society when reducing poverty is not the main political priority. Unfortunately, the fact that Flanders and Brussels are among the most prosperous regions in Europe and that still so many children grow up in poverty, suggests that our priorities lie elsewhere.
By Alicja Gescinska