Poverty isn't a setback, it's an assault

12 December 2009

Poverty isn't a setback, it's an assault

It was only two little words and they were, moreover, hidden in a long, somewhat solemn sentence: 'The government calls on citizens, companies, other authorities and social organisations together to tackle with force and with one voice social exclusion and hidden poverty.' But the fact that Queen Beatrix had pronounced these words nevertheless caused quite a commotion. For the first time in many years the monarch had, in the Queen's Speech – in which the policies of the Dutch government for the coming term are laid out - on 19th September 1995 – referred again to poverty in the Netherlands. That was over fourteen years ago, and poverty persists.

by Jan Marijnissen, Member of Parliament for the SP

Jan MarijnissenOf course, nobody in our country has to die from starvation and of course poverty is a relative concept. But for the people it affects, it certainly appears as an absolute fact. Poverty means that you cannot function normally in your society, because you are excluded through lack of money, or because effective services are beyond your reach. Poverty goes deep, and has many faces. Countless pieces of research both in the Netherlands and abroad have demonstrated that there are major differences in the health and life expectancy of people on high and low incomes. These differences grow as the rift between poor and rich widens. According to an investigation by the Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieuhygiëne (National Institute for Public and Environmental Health) from 1993, at that time people with a low socio-economic status died on average four-and-a-half years earlier and remained healthy for twelve-and-a-half years fewer than did those with a high status. Now, the equivalent figures are seven years shorter life, seventeen fewer years of good health.

As long ago as 1996 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), in its Annual Human Development Report, described the Netherlands' economic growth as 'heartless'. The UNDP pointed in particular to the unfair way in which the revenues from increasing prosperity were distributed through society. The Queen spoke about 'poverty', but in the policy documents which followed most references were to 'poor people', the purpose being to give the impression that poverty had no structural cause. Poor people are themselves to blame, their failure and their lot are their own fault. That this opinion is alive and well in our country can be seen from a number of reactions to Marcel van Dam's film ‘De Onrendabelen’ (The Uneconomic). Deprived of any form of empathy are people who for whatever reason have not made it in life, who are dismissed as losers, people who need a kick up the backside. Two things are being ignored here. In the first place, that people on the social minimum have made no progress since 1980, while in the same period our prosperity rose in general by 50%. In the second place, that we have lost sight of the fact that there is a growing group of people who for reasons to do with who they are or who they have become, can no longer participate in our current, high performance society. These people can quite simply not hold their own in the modern retrace which our society has become. Here, society is confronted with an unbreakable limitation on what is possible. You can pull on a blade of grass, but it won't make it grow any faster. The fact that a growing group of people is being excluded because they cannot keep pace with the the dynamic, technologically advanced 24-hour economy, should give us pause, force us to think about what society actually means. A free run for homo economicus? For the survival of the fittest? Or is it valuing people, no matter who they are, and offering them opportunities in their lives? A society which grants everyone his or her dignity, which regards people as being equal in worth, and which sees solidarity as a precondition of a fruitful and productive society, such a society will take care of its weakest members. How can we organise this?

In the first place we must do something about gigantic differences in incomes. That people earn differing amounts is understood by everyone when a good reason exists for these differences and when this is explained to people. As things stand, this isn't happening. For the most part, this is because it cannot be explained. Related to this problem is the fact that the social minimum must be raised. Hard, deep poverty is unacceptable in a prosperous, civilised society. It is unacceptable from the point of view of our common humanity, but also because we know that poverty provides a breeding ground for all sorts of undesirable behaviour, for bad diets and bad habits in general, for neglect, truancy, drug addiction and criminality. Secondly, we need to provide work for everyone in order to give each person a place in society. In the past a firm such as Philips employed people in every one of its establishments who performed the simplest tasks, from making the coffee to distributing the post, and from doing straightforward repairs to cleaning the premises. What could not be automated is now for the most part done by contractors who pay very low wages, and employ people on insecure terms and under poor conditions of employment. Even social provision for the unemployed has been 'rationalised' and run as if with a view to profit. A company such as Thomassen & Drijver, before it fell into American hands, had its own training school where everyone could learn new skills. Young people entering the firm began by spending a long period with an experienced person in order gradually to learn the job and how to act at work. For none of these matters is there any longer any time, and humanity is no longer the measure of things. So-called 'efficiency in the service of profit maximalisation' is the only criterion by which the desirability of a thing is judged. The human scale has disappeared. The crisis with which the modern, western society is faced is teaching us a great deal about what has failed. .

Every person is in the first instance responsible for his or her own life and happiness. But that is only one side of the story. The community, society, must be organised so that everyone can pursue happiness with a maximum chance of success. As well as our responsibility for ourselves, we are also responsible for our fellows. And that is a good thing. Human beings are after all social beings. For this reason, we must put the 'social' back into our society.

This article appeared on 1st December 2009 in a number of Dutch regional newspapers.

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