No, poverty is not a choice — and this is why

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of When In Manila. 

With the enhanced community quarantine in effect across several cities, we’ve seen that those suffering from it the most are the economically marginalized – the homeless who rely on the charity of others, informal workers who no longer have the means to put food on their table, students unable to complete their education due to inaccessibility of materials. 

Upon learning of the realities that the impoverished are going through, it wasn’t compassion or empathy that a specific subset of Philippine society felt for them — it was blame. A great number of people punished the poor by saying it was their fault, their choice, to be poor in the first place. 

Image Credit: AFP

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Why do we have the tendency to think like that? It’s because we’re taught to believe that if we work hard and study well then we will have a good life. It’s the greatest lie that neoliberalism has indoctrinated into our belief system — the idea that life is fair and follows a set of rules. And if we follow those rules, then success is imminent. 

The converse then is that the inability to live a “good” life – i.e. keeping a well-paying job, being able to send their children to school, having food on the table – must be derived from deviating from these rules. 

We apply this logic to say that the poor are poor because they are lazy. Because they refused to go to school. Because they spend their money on gambling, drugs, and alcohol. 

But that doesn’t take into account the reality of circumstances. The saying “poverty is a cycle” isn’t just a random combination of words but an insight into poverty as a trap. 

I mean this in two ways. The first is the more general understanding of poverty as generational. Being born into poverty means you are more likely to pass down that poverty to your children, and them to their children, and so on. 

This is because growing up in poverty entails learning to live and fight through countless structural barriers, which is nearly impossible to do so without money. It means being damned to a life where your parents aren’t able to send you to a “good” school — something especially important in the Philippines where the quality of public education is sorely lacking. 

This means that even if you worked to excel in school, it wouldn’t be enough to compete for employment against those who had the privilege of going to a prestigious school. Having that disadvantage in the job market then leads to fewer opportunities and low-paying jobs. Low-paying jobs affect your ability to put away money for yourself or your family, essentially leaving you stuck in the same place you started. 

The second is that poverty is cyclical even within one lifespan. Growing up without enough food on the table means you live in constant hunger at best, and malnourishment at worst. This, in turn, affects your health and makes you more susceptible to sickness. Without the money to pay for medicine, your only option is to brave it through and keep working hard — because that’s what society tells you to do. 

The general mindset is that education is the solution to lifting people out of poverty but that education is useless if you are exposed to all these different elements which compromise your ability to make the most out of it.  

So when people say you only need to work to lift yourself from poverty what they really mean is you need to work to earn enough to be saving and spending. These are things the poor just aren’t able to think about when they don’t even have enough money for their next meal or for a place to sleep tonight. 

The lives we are granted by the virtue of the birth lottery defines how likely we are to succeed in life from the very get-go. It is infinitely easier for someone already born into money and power to continue amassing it. Even the middle class is afforded countless privileges that the poor are not: better education, better connections, even a safer environment to live in.  

There is no reasonable way to blame the poor for being poor. The fault lies in the system, but so does the solution. A comprehensive social welfare system working in tandem to provide shelter, nourishment, basic healthcare, and general education is what is necessary and right. 

The odds are stacked against the poor. With no outside intervention, there is little for them to do except to work as hard as they can and hope as much as possible — but rarely is that ever enough.

What do you think about this?

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