‘Do you know what it is to be poor? Not poor with the arrogant poverty complained of by certain people with five or six thousand a year to live upon, and who swear they can barely manage to make both ends meet? Do you know what it is to be really poor—downright, cruelly, hideously poor, with a poverty that is graceless, sordid, and miserable?’
If this sounds a little archaic, you’re right—Marie Corelli penned this description of poverty in her 19th century novel The Sorrows of Satan, and—shameless literary plug— you should 100% read it. Because what Corelli is describing is different from the poverty you and I feel when our student loans run out. This is extreme poverty, the type which most students don’t even know about. Maybe at the end of the semester, we’ve run out of money, but we’re not perceived as those who have no money. Not to the point where someone would turn us away from Stag’s or The Bridge, or any of our other favourite haunts.
Therein lies the primary problem: the fact that most discrimination against the poor originates with a baseline judgmental outlook. If we said it out loud, “In the UK, we think it’s okay to discriminate against poor people!”, no one would be comfortable uttering that phrase. Yet we do it all the time and in so doing, we contribute to the criminalisation of poverty. “But being poor isn’t a crime!” you might say, and you’re right. However, it’s criminalised by society and we constantly find loopholes to promote and exonerate our prejudice.
We do it when we refuse to hire people because they look poor. We do it when we create policies that support denying service at shops or restaurants to anyone who looks like they’re too down on their luck. Ultimately, it’s important to identify the why behind our discrimination. Concerns about safety, cleanliness, and an establishment’s reputation are cited, but in so doing we stimulate the cycle of criminalisation.
Even while we uphold a system that keeps the poor from ever rising out of poverty, we continue to ask such questions as, “Why don’t you work harder? Why don’t you save?”, as if we’ve single-handedly discovered the solution to poverty. As such, we amplify our own positions of privilege because questions like these highlight our assumption that poverty is the result of individual choices. It’s easier to assume that poor people are poor because they chose to be, because of bad decisions, than it is to acknowledge the failings of a broken system.
The truth is that we don’t exist on a level playing field. Financial independence, happiness, and stability are not within equal reach for all citizens. Poverty is also more than just not having money — it’s a cycle comprised of a variety of complex factors, a cycle that can steamroll those trapped within its endless loop. The same difficulties that affect non-impoverished people — medical bills, unexpected expenses, death, divorce to name a few — affect poor people as well and they only further the cycle of poverty.
If you find yourself re-thinking your conceptualisation of poverty and wondering what you can do to break the cycle of social criminalisation, here’s what you can do to help:
- Be an ally – Treat poor people like people and make the effort to have a conversation and be kind.
- Educate – Do your research and use factual information to debunk stereotypes of poverty.
- Use your Voice – You can help perpetuate the truth that being poor is not a crime.