Opinion

Everyone is afraid of poverty, so why haven't we declared war on it?

Instead of spending 40 per cent of its budget on shoring up poverty, the government should be working to eradicate it

J Paul Getty sits at a dining table alone

J Paul Getty made his multibillion-dollar fortune in petroleum, but was famously stingy even towards his own family. Image: Manuel Litran/Paris Match via Getty Images

I have always held the opinion that poverty is the greatest social driver in the history of the human world. That when the aristocrats of the Ancien Régime before the French Revolution, for instance, held elaborate parties with gold candlestick holders and fine and elaborate decor, they were proving how far they were from poverty.  That when you look at how wasteful the truly wealthy are, with their flotilla of houses and luxury items, their expensive drop-dead watches, they are demonstrating once again how far they are from poverty.  Deep within their psychology is still that nagging seed of poverty that they try to deprive of light and water so that it does not grow and choke out the pure light of their obese excess. How else can you explain such a pursuit of the useless but expensive? Why is it that they buy expensive art yet know nothing of it, chasing the artist’s name rather as they would chase any brand that costs an arm and a leg?  

I am reminded of this when I flick through the corpulent magazines that show these products dripping with excessive prices. When wealthy people allow the camera into their homes, we are witnessing their ridiculous obsession with escaping the stigma and threat of poverty: yes, pursuing wealth to untold heights and accumulating ever more is actually running away from the poverty seed that resides in all human life.  

The fear of not being able to feed your children can move mountains, if you follow the logic of what I believe to be this major driving force of human history. Why else should so much have been spent historically to decorate the everyday life of wealthy people? Why else do they spend their billions that way? Why have a house on so many different continents that remains empty but for a few weeks a year?  To prove that you will never ever, ever be homeless?  

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I know that I will be receiving mail from very, very, very rich people who say that they always travel on buses and do not elaborate or over-decorate their lives; which actually proves my major conjecture, that they – in fact all of us – are running away from poverty. The famous billionaire, the late J Paul Getty, might be the proof of that when he installed a coin-operated telephone in his house so that he didn’t have to pick up the bill for people’s phone calls. Yet he countermanded this penny-pinching by having a shedload of luxury gear.  If you take my argument deeper, we might find that beneath the fear of poverty is the sense that piling up money not only wards off poverty but shields us from the fear of dying. Money is the biggest insurance policy ever imagined against dying, or dying without significance.  

Plenty of money certainly guarantees that you can ward off poverty. You don’t have to meet the poor if you are rich. You can fly around the world in your private tin can and land at private landing strips. You can be inoculated against poverty by your dozens of drivers and carriers, your porters and sherpas. That is what wealth is all about: this hiding, this denying. This pursuit of a happiness that seldom arrives but in moments of ecstasy; that then evaporates until the next moment of ecstasy.  

Poverty is the great machine that causes wars, that drives world history and contemporary events. The fight to defeat poverty in a country’s history will lead nations to try and take from others what they have. Hence our current travails in Ukraine and what is happening in the world around the geopolitical order; unstable and changing as China endeavours to get as far away from poverty as possible. Girding itself with the riches of others.  Trying to move the tectonic plates of world power in order to have more.  

Yet poverty, except in bite-size chunks, is never fully understood. Our government spends circa 40 per cent of its income on trying to wall-up the effects of poverty. Tries to make the poor as comfortable as possible. Tries to keep poverty at bay, yet flatly refuses to invest in a seismic overhaul of the poverty fight so that we can get rid of it once and for all.  

Won’t even consider a major war against poverty because that would mean tearing up the rulebook and starting afresh. The manifestos for the next general election will contain the usual fudging, short term quick fix, the stop-gapping that we have had from government for most of the last hundred years. Governments aspire never actually to root out the destruction of human potential that lies at the heart of poverty but to cooperate in just keeping it at bay.  

In late February a niece of mine died from poverty. The poverty of her birth, her education, her social aspirations. A good 20 years ripped from her life by governments not facing up to their historic responsibility to rid the world of poverty’s sting. Poverty kills because it emasculates you.

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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