Blessed be the poor sounds like a quote from the Bible, but it’s not. I just liked it as a title.
Many say that the old divisions between left and right, and of social class, are no longer valid. These divisions are not as clear-cut as they once were. However, it is undoubtedly true that while some are wealthy enough to go anywhere and do what they please, at the other end of the wealth scale some are stuck in a place and struggle daily with finding the basic needs of shelter and sustenance.
During the first quarter of a century after World War II Western society generally achieved for the first time in history a situation where most households could own a car and take an annual holiday of several weeks on pay. Tony Judt in his Postwar: a History of Europe Since 1945 tells how German per capita GDP from 1950 to 1973 more than tripled in real terms. In France it improved by 150%, while Italy, from a low base, did even better. In Britain in 1957, PM Harold Macmillan told the people:
“Let us be frank about it: most of our people have never had it so good.”
The age of affluence had been achieved. Then from around 1970, according to Emmanuel Wallerstein, the long growth period turned into stagnation. The perception has been two steps backwards for every three forwards, or maybe the other way around. A term invented at the time, and found by economists to have substance for seven major economies from 1973, was stagflation.
I’m sure the poor were with us all through that time and are certainly there now. To start at the back end of an excellent segment of an ANC RN The Money program How money messes with you, Eldar Shafir, Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs at Princeton University, tells us that 30 per cent of the USA population are poor. By ‘poor’ he means a state of mind as well as a lack of money. He’s talking about people who don’t know whether they’ll be able to survive from one month to the next, who have to concentrate hard on survival, and are really quite skilled at it. Most of us couldn’t do it.
But the mental effort involved constitutes a cognitive load, with the mind hijacked by the task of survival. This has several consequences.
The first is that the poor, in concentrating on the core task, often miss, neglect, or get wrong things on the periphery that actually make their situation worse.
Secondly, the cognitive load makes their minds work less efficiently. Shafir and colleagues showed this in Indian sugar farmers, who are cruising after the harvest, but become stressed and poor as the year progresses until the next harvest. They did IQ tests on them, and the difference in performance is 9 to 10 points.
So the poor do dumb things, and are not admired by the middle class. Dr Suzanne Horwitz of the School of Psychology at Yale University researched the attitudes of the middle class towards those below and above, especially the rich. She said middle class had a poor overt opinion of the rich, but felt that their behaviour indicated otherwise. Her research showed that there was an implicit opinion that showed the middle class thought the rich were actually better than the rest. They were rich, so per se they must have superior merit in their behaviour towards others as well as their ability.
Dacher Keltner, Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkeley found otherwise.
Their research found that the wealthy showed less empathy, told more lies, used more profanities in the work place, were more likely to steal candies from a jar meant for kids, gave less proportionately to charity, teenagers were more likely to engage in shoplifting, the list is endless. A study showed that the suffering of others showed less reaction in the vagus nerve of the wealthy.
One study looked at what happened when a student was about to step out onto a pedestrian crossing. Others observed the models of cars and what they did. Old clunkers stopped 100%. However, 46% of the expensive cars drove through.
They found that the wealthy were in fact less able to judge the emotions of others; they were less emotionally intelligent.
Lynn Parramore writes of the thesis by emeritus professor of economics at MIT Peter Temin who thinks the United States is dividing along the 80-20 income fault line.
The top layer is:
- what Temin calls the “FTE sector” (named for finance, technology, and electronics, the industries which largely support its growth). These are the 20 percent of Americans who enjoy college educations, have good jobs, and sleep soundly knowing that they have not only enough money to meet life’s challenges, but also social networks to bolster their success. They grow up with parents who read books to them, tutors to help with homework, and plenty of stimulating things to do and places to go. They travel in planes and drive new cars. The citizens of this country see economic growth all around them and exciting possibilities for the future. They make plans, influence policies, and count themselves as lucky to be Americans.
The rest are scrambling, with insecure jobs. If they have a college degree they had to go heavily into debt to get it. Temin says the United states is becoming a third world country with an economic and political structure more like a developing nation. Its public infrastructure looks more like Thailand or Venezuela than The Netherlands or Japan.
That’s probably a little simplistic. The truth is probably less cleanly cut, but I wouldn’t contest the general shape of what he portrays.
Here in Oz we may be seeing a fault-line develop that is signified by the ownership of housing. In the major cities, the aspiration is turning from acquiring a house of our own to being able to afford to rent. These two graphs courtesy of Labor’s housing affordability policy tell a tale:
If you combined the bars into five groups to make quintiles, around half the benefits would flow to the top quintile. The pattern is stronger with capital gains:
Some people rent out of preference, but many are being bled dry by the wealthy.
In this post I’m not canvassing solutions, just looking for understanding and empathy. One who has empathy for the poor is Pope Francis. When it was becoming clear during the conclave voting that he would be elected the new bishop of Rome:
- the Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes had embraced him and whispered, “Don’t forget the poor”, which had made Bergoglio think of the saint. Bergoglio had previously expressed his admiration for St. Francis, explaining that “He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history.” Bergoglio’s selection of his papal name is the first time that a pope has been named Francis.
Around Easter my friend in Germany sent me a link to some quotations of Pope Frances by one Peter Funt, who says the Pope:
- has become a beacon of common sense, most emphatically in his devotion to the economically disenfranchised.
“The world tells us to seek success, power and money,” he observes. “God tells us to seek humility, service and love.”
Towards the end:
- – “The problem of intolerance should be dealt with as a whole. Every time a minority is persecuted and marginalized, the good of the whole society is in danger.”
– “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity.”
– “To change the world we must be good to those who cannot repay us.”
A few weeks ago, the Pope spoke about encountering beggars on the street. “There are many excuses” to justify not giving them money, he noted. Perhaps it will be spent on alcohol or drugs.
But giving something to someone in need “is always right,” he explained. And looking them in the eyes and touching their hands must be the way one reaches out to a person asking for help.
The last time I saw my friend was at the bus station at Nuremberg. We were approached by a man, obviously distressed and from somewhere else, who showed us his cracked mobile phone, and asked for a coin so that he could make a phone call at a public phone.
We saw him make the call, then he came and thanked my friend.
The Pope wants the poor and excluded to be front of mind on a personal and policy level. Of interest is a report just in on social fluidity (people’s chances of moving between certain occupational classes) in Europe. Social mobility improved in the cohorts examined in Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Greece, The Netherlands and Slovakia, and decreased in Austria, Bulgaria, France and Sweden. In Germany, Ireland, Poland and UK it has remained stable.
Access to education is obviously central, but not the whole answer.