03 December 2012

Barriers (3 of 3)

The poor are always with us, it’s said. Said as if it was a necessity or something that could not be changed. An acceptance of defeatism, a reluctance to shake the status quo. And George Bernard Shaw said that the reasonable person would accept this, for it was only the unreasonable person that wanted change. It seems inevitable that there will be richer and poorer, but why the rich shouldn’t get richer at the expense of the poorer; and do the rich need to be so much richer?

If you are one of the 10% — or, more likely these days, the 1% — you are probably content to leave things alone. After all you control so much of the world’s wealth that you are impregnable, aren’t you? You can have anything you want, and anything disturbing can easily be airbrushed — photoshopped — out of your field of view. So, to you, everything looks rosy.

And even for the other 90 − 99%, things aren’t equal. It seems as if one group has the power, such as it is, and the other suffer under it. It was once like this for those at the top. I’m talking about the difference between men and women.

From the beginnings of recorded history, women have been inferior to men; recorded history in western countries, that is. There are places where women have a more equal role, but these are often categorised as “undeveloped” or “savage”; non-westernised, uncivilised — and ripe for colonial exploitation.

And the position of married women was, legally speaking, as if they barely existed. And yet for many women, the “protection” of marriage at least enabled them to endure life.

The modern, supposedly emancipated women, can certainly have a career, even if rising to the top is constrained by the glass ceiling — or “stained glass” ceiling. But she does this with one eye on her reproductive functions and “biological clock”. Curiously, for all the advantages that men would arrogate to themselves, reproduction isn’t one of them.

And so, for so many women, there is a double disadvantage; poverty and the patriarchy. So often, they are expected to do much of the work of providing for the family. You’ve probably seen the images of men sitting around, drinking — alcohol or coffee, depending on culture — and looking on while their women work.

One traditional way out of poverty for women has been prostitution. You may well have moral objections to this, but that is to ignore the fact that it has existed for as long as we have recorded history, and shows no signs of disappearing. Closing your eyes to it won’t make it go away, nor will exhortations or laws. If you think it’s exploitation, what then is working for the minimal wage shelf stacking in a supermarket? Hardly anyone’s idea of ambition.

And there are still places where education for women barely happens; it may have been common in Victorian Britain, but surely this quaint idea is long gone; except that it isn’t.

Education is the answer; easy to say, not so easy to do. Education needs teachers and facilities; but most of all it needs a major culture shift. And shifting entrenched opinions, cultures and fossilised minds also takes education, which, alas, is too often seen as inessential and thereby rejected. The “good enough for my grandfather” argument.

In the “land of the free” where the story is that anyone can drag themselves out of poverty through hard work, it turns out that this is just another myth: getting out of poverty is extremely difficult, so difficult as to be next to impossible.

All rather depressing; we can see what are (some of the) problems, we can see what would help; but achieving action is so difficult. And yet there are indications that change, long overdue, is slowly happening. Festina lente.

There’s something else to think about. It’s clear that in so many places inequality is increasing, with the 1% showing little regard for the rest, the “plebs”. History doesn’t repeat itself, but what does repeat is the inability to learn any lessons from history. The burden of taxation has weighed heavily on those least able to pay it in many places — and I’m not excluding present day Britain. Some classes — the Church and the nobility — didn’t even pay taxes, for taxes were for the “little people”. And the result, eventually? Think of the French revolution, the Russian revolution, what happened to the Ottoman Empire. Could this happen again?

The (inchoate?) thoughts in these three pieces were initiated by watching the BBC’s Why Poverty series. The individual programmes may be available on the iPlayer. There is more at www.bbc.co.uk/whypoverty and there are links there to further information from the Open University. Do look.

There’s also a BBC series called Inside Claridge’s or how the other 1% lives. Marvel at the oleaginous ego-polishing.

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