Systemic roots of poverty must be addressed

Dirty mattresses lay on the floor. The smell of garbage mixed with stale smoke saturated the air.

Dirty mattresses lay on the floor. The smell of garbage mixed with stale smoke saturated the air. A dull glaze over the eyes of the small child holding onto the woman who took the food basket from the Catholic Worker house staffer I accompanied underlined the dire poverty of their situation. The ghetto in St. Louis, Missouri offered them little in the way of hope.

The woman smeared an earthen red paste over the base of her rondoval. Accretions from ant mounds found throughout the scrublands at the edge of the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, pounded into powder and with water carried from a stand pipe several kilometres away, made the paste. It provided a better seal against the elements than the bare mud plastered walls of her simple home alone would. She got up from her work to welcome me and the Mennonite Central Committee volunteers I was with.

Poverty across the world has many faces. In our very divided world we try to understand the why of poverty. Does the amount of money that a person has access to define poverty? A common calculation uses the annual per capita Gross Domestic Product to separate the rich from the poor. It measures the relative wealth in a country based on the total value of the goods and services produced internally every year. This ranges from over $100,000 in Qatar to barely $400 in the Congo. The average for the world as a whole last year was around $12,500 last year with Canada at $42,000.

A citizen of the Attawapiskat Cree First Nation on James Bay has far more cash available to them than a peasant farmer in East Timor. Money can’t be the sole determining factor.

George Orwell wrote in his 1933 Down and Out in Paris and London: “People are wrong when they think that an unemployed man only worries about losing his wages; on the contrary, an illiterate man, with the work habit in his bones, needs work even more than he needs money. An educated man can put up with enforced idleness, which is one of the worst evils of poverty. … That is why it is such nonsense to pretend that those who have ‘come down in the world’ are to be pitied above all others. The man who really merits pity is the man who has been down from the start, and faces poverty with a blank, resourceless mind.”

Societal inequality, social barriers and other systemic factors have to be added to any attempted calculation of poverty and its impact on people. Psychological factors can’t be ignored either.

Pope Francis speaking to some 20,000 people near Cagliari, Sardinia late last month put the focus on the systemic core of the problem of poverty. A September 23 Catholic News Service article reported his words, “We want a just system that lets all of us get ahead. We don’t want this globalized system that does us so much harm. At its centre should be man and woman, as God wants, not money.”

A popular social activist and Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Sister Teresa Forcades put it more directly in a Guardian article from May 13. “Her critique of neoliberal capitalism includes not just a Christian desire to protect the weak, but also an attack on the hypocrisy of a system that gives goods and capital the freedom to cross frontiers while workers cannot. “It is a version of capitalism where the rights and needs of people are pushed aside,” she says, pointing to how taxes are higher on selling bread than on financial speculation.

Dorothy Day, a Catholic social activist who died in 1980 and now is being considered for sainthood, stated most bluntly of all, “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.”

Poverty and Homelessness Action Week continues with a presentation by Judy Graves, the recently retired homeless advocate for the City of Vancouver, at L’AFY 302 Strickland on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at 7 p.m. She will challenge us to see those living invisibly on the margins of our society.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact