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Prejudice against the poor

Monday, July 8, 2013

Last week a headline read: “Poverty is not a major factor in cause of crime.” For the author, crime was simply a matter of personal choice. Such logic is seductive and piggybacks on the US ideology of individual economic responsibility.  Poverty becomes something one chooses to move from or not. In such a world, failure to achieve is viewed as the responsibility of the individual. 


This is poverty as moral failure and justifies for many any personal prejudice against the poor, including the nonsense that poverty does not impact crime. Such ideas about poverty are often based on personal stories about people who rose up and broke out of poverty. Anecdote is not good science; it’s more like myth-making. Anthropological research into poverty highlights a diversity of experiences among people classified as poor—including great resilience by those who do not escape it.


And while there is certainly academic debate about whether poverty causes crime, it has been proven that many conditions inherent in poverty are risk factors for criminal behaviour. Anthropologists do not document poverty as an economic condition to be measured. Rather they describe poverty as a qualitative social relation of multi-dimensional deprivation. That means poverty affects the quality of a person’s life not just in terms of income but rights, opportunities, capabilities and entitlements. 


Yes, poverty doesn’t affect every person in exactly the same way but poverty does impact every person’s ability to achieve his or her full human potential and the World Bank’s 2001 report on poverty said just that. 



People living in poverty are more likely to live or come from broken homes, experience low levels of education, suffer high rates of mortality, lack support, possess weak social networks, endure poor health conditions, including poor nutrition, that effects many different abilities. They are also likely to be excluded from market participation and services. 


Calling all people who live in poverty “vagabonds” is not only prejudice and deliberately misleading, it suggests poverty is just about being hungry and needing a job, and there is no structural impediment to breaking the cycle. People can come forward with their examples of individual success stories but it doesn’t change the fact that while some individuals break the cycle, the group “poor” on the whole cannot break the cycle and capitalism is designed to function in that precise way.


Capitalism requires an underclass, a poor, an industrial reserve army of labour, to do all the low-paying, awful jobs. That is a fact. Great wealth was, and is, accumulated by dispossession and it produces/d great poverty. Capitalism is a zero-sum game. There must be winners and losers. This isn’t a fun ride for everyone; this is neoliberal 21st century capitalism and it’s not that different in its punishments to late 19th century capitalism.


In this sense, poverty is a consequence of historical relationships that include white supremacy, racial hierarchy, underdevelopment, the creation of laws, class warfare, urbanism, transnational geopolitics, and how such big processes made and make the world. Poverty is not an abstraction one can personally choose to overcome or not. Rather, poverty is about social processes and the effects those processes have on productive people.


Let’s end with a simple question. What came first: poverty or the culture of poverty? Anthropologist Phillipe Bourgois spent years living and researching drugs dealers in the ghettos of Puerto Rico. He noted that rather than guns and drug culture being the culture of the ghetto, the ghetto and its poverty should be understood in historical and social context as the reaction to particular social and economic configurations in the colonial relationship between the USA and Puerto Rico.


A similar argument can be made about T&T. Yes, a culture of poverty can lead to criminality and anti-social behaviour, but we should also understand how the historical circumstances of our colonial relationship gave us the poverty that in turn constantly produces/d the culture of poverty we now denigrate and fear.


Put bluntly, blaming the poor for living in poverty rather than fixing the society that produces/d poverty is a massive blind spot found among some who do not live in poverty. It helps them feel successful and accomplished—superior. It’s a hold over of the divide-and-conquer politics of colonialism and racist at heart. 


Poverty and the many wider socio-cultural issues, like crime, that it impacts, exist (and always will) because of the type of society we’ve all built, not because of the failure of individuals to personally overcome poverty. 


• Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at UWI, St Augustine


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