Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The poor will always be with us: seriously?

The health inequalities between rich and poor are widening, reports BBC Health.

We've known this since the Black Report was published in 1980, and as not much notice was taken at the time, it's hardly surprising that 30 years on we're faced with the same problem, only bigger.

When I lived in Peru people often asked me if I was shocked by the poverty there. And yes, it is shocking to see shanty towns built up by the sides of motorways, to see shops which sell pre-fab sheds and then see the same sheds in the desert with entire families living in them, to hear children exclaim with excitement over such simple things as grass and trees and then ask with disinterest if they will be eating today, as so far they haven't. I saw children whose teeth were no more than shells and a toddler with a paraistic infection who rarely mentioned that his tummy hurt although it was the size of a football. I met a terrified young girl whose father had beaten her because she had her first period (in her innocence she had no idea why, but apparently her teenage sister had had a baby which possibly explains her father's concern although in now way justifies his action). I heard, from a volunteer doctor, of a patient with appendicitis who went home and died because he didn't have the money to pay for the operation, and read in the paper of a man whose body was thrown off the bus and left in the street when he died on his way to the hospital.

Yes, poverty in the developing world is indeed shocking. But what is more shocking is the divide between rich and poor. I saw a school with no toilets (the children go in the playground) and half an hour away another which had facilities that would put a state primary in this country to shame. The wealthy who live alongside poverty often completely ignore it, and one can grow up in Lima and never realise that there are such things as shanty towns (I'm not sure exactly how, but I'm assured by those who did that it is entirely possible).

In Lima, if you meet a child in a shanty town whose hands and face and clothes are dirty you know that it's because when you live in a desert, everything gets dirty very quickly; there is no running water at home, certainly not hot water or washing machines; there probably isn't any soap, because food is the prioity, and very possibly these are the only clothes she has, especially in winter when the humidity seems to make the cold penetrate one's bones and wearing everything you own is a better alternative than freezing. If a boy doesn't (can't or won't) use a knife and fork, it might be because his family don't own any, but it's equally likely that having not eaten all day he just wants to get it down as fast as he can. When you have nothing, staying alive is the priority, cutlery and soap are luxuries. The only answer to this reality is love. Love until it hurts and then love more, because without love the only answer is frustration and anger that there is injustice in the world, and despair at one's helplessness in the face of it.

If you go into a school in an inner city in the UK and see pupils with dirty clothes and hair, it's not because they don't have hot water or washing machines or soap. It's because they are neglected, whether that is because they have a single parent who works all hours to make ends meet or nobody bothers to wash them or their clothes. Some people have hard choices to make, other just choose to make bad ones. If they don't use a knife and fork it's because their family doesn't sit down together and eat meals at the table, or because they always eat processed food which comes in a handy pick-me-up-and-eat-me format. You do not expect "beans on toast" to be the answer to the question, "What did you have for Christmas dinner?" (and he didn't know it was Christmas anyway because his parents hadn't bothered to mention it). There are children with mobile phones but no crayons. What a difference from a child with nothing who on being given a packet of cocoa <i>in July</i> assures you that his family are going to save it for Christmas day.

The divide between rich and poor in this country is not manifested solely in deaths from heart disease. There is a spiritual and cultural "poor gap" which has nothing to do with economics. Poverty is shocking wherever you see it, but somehow it is more shocking here where everyone has access to  education, healthcare and doesn't need to make a choice between soap and food, between clothes and beds. The lack of God, the lack of Love, in this green and pleasant land makes us poorer by far. This is the poverty that should not be with us. Everyone has the right to know God, and the riches that come from abundant life, and this is why we need the New Evangelisation.


  1. The Year of Faith - May we, by the way we live our lives (witnessing) and our words (communicating), share the presence of this God of love with our neighbors, that they may acknowledge Him and discover their own hunger for His presence in their lives.

  2. Great blog!

    I lived in a fishing village in Ecuador for a couple of years when I was in my twenties, so your post means a lot to me. My experience of poverty and the penny dropping about what was and was not important in life, was the final factor that propelled me back to God from atheism.


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