Monday, October 24, 2005

Today's Rant on Poverty and Class

It is slightly disturbing to reflect upon the fact that our world isn't naturally and magically overcoming the vast inequalities that exist; we aren't racing towards a golden future.

One of the related questions that keeps popping up lately is: How much personal responsibility should someone take for a poverty-stricken life?

One thing is true: taking reponsibility is empowering. Not taking responsibility leads to being and feeling trapped. However, there is only so much room to maneuver in any given life situation. I would argue that, it is absolutely an individual's responsibility to maximise opportunities, but at the same time, it is not up to anyone else to judge that individual for "failure", because no one else knows the circumstances of this individual life. No one knows the starting point, or the obstacles faced by this individual.

A little analogy related to my favourite sport: Imagine a 10k running race. The start line is not at the 0k position for everyone. One runner (Joe), starts 2 kilometers before the start line, meaning he has to run 2K to even reach the start. Bill starts at the start line (0k). Sally starts at the first kilometer (1k head start). Is it certain that Sally would win the race? Of course not.

If Joe runs a 3:30 Minute kilometer, he will complete the race in 42 minutes. Sally might run a 7 minute kilometer (like Leigh and I did at the Niagara marathon this past weekend), which would give her a finish time of 63 minutes, so she would not beat Joe even though she had a head start. Bill might trip and twist his ankle, allowing Joe to pass him. In other words, there are many variables other than starting position to determine how someone will place in a race. That doesn't change the fact that starting 1k behind someone else is a disadvantage. No one would dispute, that all other things being equal, a staggered start is very unfair. If all runners were to run a 6 minute kilometer, the finish times would be 54 minutes (Sally), 60 minutes (Bill), and 66 minutes (Joe).

In the gut, this feels very obvious, doesn't it? As though it isn't even a question. So why does a comparable discussion of class and poverty elicit such inflammatory comments so often? "She is poor because she is lazy", "I worked for everything I have, why should someone else deserve a hand out", "There will always be poor people so why do anything about it", "rich people are better and more important than poor people".

At the finish line of the 10k race, no one in their right mind would say that Joe lost because he is slow, or lazy. No one would dispute that Sally ran her best race: she ran as fast as she can. Bill, too, ran as fast as he can, but he neither the right to feel superior to Joe because he beat him, nor should he feel as though he didn't earn his 60 minute finish. The point is, they all ran exactly the same speed and should be considered equal winners.

A person has a responsibility to run the best race possible, but should not be judged on the basis of the final finishing time.

I am (rather unsubtly) talking about the lack of class mobility here, which tends to contradict the much-spouted idea that capitalism is a meritocracy.

It is a fact that, at least in the US, there is a Growing Gulf Between Rich And Rest Of Us. There is a huge tendency to blame the poor as a group for this, without considering the individual challenges any given poor person might have had to face. Yes a poor person might be lazy, but so might a rich person. For example, by the standards of the majority of the world's income levels, I am rather well to do. Even by the standards of my own society, I am certainly comfortable. I am sometimes lazy. I have been homeless, and probably worked harder back then than I do now.

The world is infinitely complex; questions of poverty, disadvantage, and other social ills are equally so. Rather than be so quick to judge, perhaps we should exhibit some understanding and work towards collective solutions that benefit everyone.

More on Poverty & Class Issues

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