Blessed be the poor

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Many say that the old divisions between left and right, and of social class, are no longer valid.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.

27 thoughts on “Blessed be the poor”

  1. I know a number of people who have done good things for people who have needed help for years and years. The people I am thinking of are generally emphatic in the sense that they feel for a wide range of issues and people but are able to largely stay focused on issues where they can make a difference and pace what they do so they don’t become burnt out, divorced or what ever. (This doesn’t need that they can’t work hard in a crisis, simply that they know their own limits and the limits of their relationships.) They also have empathy with those who have the power to help them make a difference.
    I would agree that the world would be better off with a bit more empathy but that agreement is qualified by the comment that too much or the wrong type of empathy can be counterproductive for both the helpers and the helped.

  2. Great thread, Brian. I am going to have to read it several times to take it all in and mull it over. You are clearly demonstrating how empathy largely stratifies our communities, and the effect of wars on reblending through disruption and the development of broad common purpose. You also raise the question of innate empathy versus developed empathy (or lack of).

    The next part of this study is to consider the interplay of empathy, politics, religion, population and technology/science.

    To my thinking what Lynne Hinton achieved and demonstrated was the one thing we can do to mend the damaged fabric of our community and moderate the excesses of intolerance. With the demise of religion as the moral scale against which we self judge, there is a void in our Australian community filled only with the law which is a poor substitute to enable the understanding of others, and this is so vividly obvious in the laws impact on aborigines.

    I know I will get pasted badly for saying this, but one of the greatest losses to our communities is the abandonment of folk dancing and community balls. Markets and election day are a poor substitute for the opportunity for whole communities to be visible to one another and meet at the same time that abandoned social gatherings offered.

  3. ….and,…this

    ” Then from around 1970, according to Emmanuel Wallerstein, the long growth period turned into stagnation”

    is really fascinating.

    I emigrated to New Zealand in 1980 from Aust and came in on the tail end of this era where it had been delayed by 10 years. I’ve got to put a lot of thought into what happened here.

  4. I won’t paste you BilB boy.
    On our arrival in a semi-rural area in Gippsland, we found two key events which welcomed us to the district. One was an annual community fair on a community reserve next to a small stream, under majestic gum trees.

    Turned out it was a small parcel of land set aside by a wise farming family who had been there for generations. Some Quaker connection I recall vaguely?

    The warmth, generosity, and fun of the market; subsequently, an annual bush dance at the same place, with hay bales to sit on, little kids larking about, a wonderful family bush band (local music teachers, who stayed on for decades) under the stars, on a good night.

    Sheer bl**dy enchantment………

    Also bush dances in the local hall.
    There was a fashion for “bush dances” in Victoria for several decades, circa 1975 to 1995 (??).

    So much to like where we were: getting to know the words of old folk songs; easy dance steps; kids learning the steps; kids dancing with adults; strangers dancing in groups of six or eight or whatever; kids dancing with their primary school teachers; cuppas; fun; good music.

    Some of the best memories from those years.
    (And great to catch up with the couple who led the band, at the 70th birthday last year of another of the Mums who enjoyed those bush dances.)

    My salute to Lyndall and Stratt!!!

  5. That is a really warming account there, Ambigulous, which I’m pleased you have expressed publicly because I am going to copy and paste it around, a bit, to attempt to stimulate some different thinking.

    I experienced just one of those wonderful country events when I was on a caving trip to the Wee Jasper area decades ago. I heard that there was a local event, so while the rest of the group went to the pub in Yass, I went to the party and dance. Brilliant evening. This community was held together by one old Scottish gent who had taught everyone in the town the same old time dances. Social cohesion on a grand scale.

  6. BilB, thanks for you thoughtful comment and reminding me about Lyn Hinton and Buranda.

    When she went there Buranda was in an underprivileged area, no doubt since gentrified. The additional students she attracted were predominantly middle-class. The uber rich were elsewhere.

    Australia, more than any country, embeds and perpetuates class privilege by its support of private schools.

    I’ve got a new post up on Gonski 2.0.

  7. I had that same thought

    “more than any country, embeds and perpetuates class privilege by its support of private schools”

    as I was musing over your comments.

  8. I think empathy is a bit like “worthy of moral consideration”. When you are very young, the only person worthy of moral consideration is yourself and the only rule is “bad is something that hurts me.” For most people the boundary moves outwards to include more and more people (and often more and more animals) but there is tremendous variation in both the position of the boundary and the intensity of the empathy and the help it inspires within the boundary.
    We lived for years in a town of less than 1000 people. It was a bit like what Bilb described above. It was a community where people tended to know a lot of people and would help each other in a crisis. If you went to an event you would know a lot of the people there. (In Brisbane we find it unusual to know anyone.) If my wife had collapsed in the shopping center there would have been plenty of people who would know who she was, provide help and look after the kids. When the town was only 500 I would have said that the village idiot had a place in the community and support.
    The other point I would have made was that while there was a lot of community empathy it didn’t necessarily spread to the Aborigines up the road, the community on the other side of the Island or the rest of the world even though many of the people in that community were concerned had empathy towards people and communities outside of ours.
    Australia would be a better place to live if more people lived in functioning communities and there was more empathy for people who are different and outside of the small tight communities.

  9. Ambigulous, I loved your celebration of the country dance. Where I grew up there were frequent dances in the hall of the nearest town.

    When I came to Brisbane, I think there were still weekly dances at Cloudland, a hall on a hilltop in Bowen Hills, an inner suburb. It was demolished in 1982.

    I think there was a tradition of B&S (bachelor and spinster) balls in Central Queensland in the 1980s and 1990s. Not sure what happened, but I think there are no venues left for such activities.

    Anyway some new people in our street are having a street party next Sunday to welcome new neighbours. I might venture down and see what goes. It’s a small thing, but not nothing.

  10. John, I think it’s a rare thing these days where you get a mixing across classes, but more likely in smaller places.

  11. Yes Jumpy

    Class mixing most noticeable in a packed MCG at Aussie Rules matches.
    Good-natured joshing, for the most part.
    Far fewer blind drunks shouting.
    Family friendly, as we say these days: the AFL is very keen on that, and quite successful, e.g. little nippers get in to a match free of charge.

    Imagine that: a very good venue with much improved amenities, accessible by several kinds of public transport, no grog to be taken in; and kids pay nothing.

    I think not: just a canny and long-term view of maintaining attendance, and interest by the public.

    A footy crowd isn’t a country dance, but the goodwill between strangers is there, in spades.

    * * * *
    Brian: I think “B & S” weekends were still going in Victoria in the 1990s at least. No idea what they entailed.

    Youngsters, booze, dancing; I imagine they watched slides from Aunty Doris’s cruise to Fiji, …. something along those lines, I expect.

    That would be why they ran an extension cord out to the shearing shed, to power the slide projector. Because the gramophone was worked by turning that handle on the side.

  12. Ambiulous
    Watching the Test now!
    My youngest nephew plays his first game of Rugby League tomorrow!
    Life is good. 🙂

  13. Australia is a classless society in my experience. There is no one who I perceive to be above or below me. There is immense variety of people, there are good and bad people, there are young and old, there are those who I respect immensely and some who I avoid. But all are equal in my mind.

  14. Social class is there, but in the background I think.

    Not that the MCG is Australia in microcosm; but when the Mexican Wave passes the Members’ Section (posh, Toorak, rich, snobby – choose your cliche) everyone boos the MCC members for not participating, even when (some of them) do !!

    Good natured.
    “Bay 13” racket of catcalling, abusive barracking continues, even thugh the “Bay” itself has disappeared. As has the oldest part of the stands, the quaint Members’ Stand.

    Cordner Entrance (Members) commemorates the dazzling Cordner brothers, circa 1940s, 1950s. One of them later worked as a GP in semi-rural Diamond Creek, on the Hurstbridge railway line. No social snob or wealthy stockbroker he.

  15. I think class is still there, but the borders are not so clearly etched as they once were.

    Every weekend the Australian Financial Review contains a glossy monthly magazine that falls out of the paper. Apparently these magazines are purely supported by advertising. You would not believe how expensive simple bits of apparel and associated stuff are.

    I think there are places where if you don’t have the right clobber you will be out of place. In speech there are some strains of Australian accent which will limit your acceptability.

    My younger son worked for three years as a bicycle mechanic, and maintained friendships from there when he became a student.

    He got some part-time work in a shop where he knew no-one and they treated him like a student. He lasted a day.

  16. From Psalm 82 via Ross Gittins:

    “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.

    “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

  17. “Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” markets

  18. Jumpy, it’s not paywalled to me, and I don’t have a subscription. You must have used up your quota for the month.

  19. Maybe Brian, I do look around a lot when I get the chance.
    And it’s only the 14th!

  20. You can avoid the Fairfax paywall by using stealth mode (‘Private Browsing’ in Firefox, ‘Incognito’ in Chrome).

  21. Thanks zoot but I consider that stealing and thus immoral and against my ethics.
    Sheesh ! no wonder Fairfax is going to the wall when their most ardent supporters steal from them ( not necessarily you zoot, I don’t know that you do, do you ? )

  22. Thanks zoot but I consider that stealing and thus immoral and against my ethics.

    It appears your ethics are somewhat variable.
    (And for the record, when Fairfax adopted the clickbait business model I reduced dramatically the number of links I’m prepared to follow. They’ll have to make do with the advertising revenue from my visits to their main pages.)

  23. Glad to hear that you are maintaining a very creditable consistency on the question of class.

    I think it was a lady in Are You Being Served? who used to say, “I am unanimous about it!”

    * popular culture, TV comedy from overseas; antiquated, et cetera

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