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Opinion

John Bird: Poor or in poverty? The difference is opportunity

“It’s one of modern life’s biggest conundrums: making sure that you make the most out of being poor”

The nationalisation of poverty replaced what formerly was a religious task. Priests, monks and nuns concerned themselves chiefly with the care and repair of the poor. As well as the education and social training, and at times the labour of the needy.

For God in his infinite wisdom – who are we to know its key – deigned that there should be poor people. And obliged his nobler children to look after his needy children.

Of course Henry VIII’s reform of all that by closing monasteries and driving religion out of everyday life put the kybosh on social succour. So then the parish got brought in, and then more so the state.

Over centuries poverty was one of the earliest “industries” to increasingly be taken over by the state. And now we have reached the state spending about a third of its nearly £1 trillion income on some form of need relief.

Being poor often means making the most, carefully, out of the least

The 20th century was the period of mass mobilisation of poverty programmes by the state. Two world wars brought most people into contact with government. An at-times distant presence came into the lives of all, and the poorer you were the more the state seemed to be covering your back, picking you up, dusting you down; and feeding you, educating you and curing you.

To think of it: up until the 1866 Education Act, if you kept your nose clean, you might never actually feel the effects of government in your everyday life. Then with the Education Act it built on the poor acts and laws which only brought you into contact with “officialdom” if you were financially incontinent. In other words, if you were broke.

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I am reminded of this nationalisation because I found I had to define what I believe is the difference between being poor and being in poverty. To most commentators they are one and the same thing and you find yourself using them interchangeably.

But they are distinct. Poverty seems to me a state of mind, body and spirit where all oxygen and hope has been sucked out of the air around you. All culture, all sensitivities have been beaten or removed from you.

In fact, as I have witnessed, you don’t actually have to be poor to be in poverty. A family of heavy smoking, fughing the world, including fughing hospitals and fughing children, sat outside a pizza café recently. I sat among them reading.

They ate copious amounts of meat-piled pizza, and smoked and fughed the fughing fughers, and it reminded me of my own upbringing.

We were knee-deep in self-defeating poverty, in post-war poverty. The only difference in all those decades seemed the fughing family outside the fughing pizza café had an ample supply of money. And when they left they left in a vast bus of a shiny car.

Being poor often means making the most, carefully, out of the least. French cuisine owes its depth to the poor peasant who utilised everything.

Being poor with most people was once the bedrock on which they built a better life.

But what happens when the state nationalises poverty? When it destroys one’s innate ability to ascend out of poverty through careful husbanding of scarce resources?

That’s one of the biggest conundrums of modern life: making sure that you make the most out of being poor; and don’t get parked up in poverty that even the arrival of money cannot eradicate.

Poverty kills opportunity. Only improved government help, not its current heaviness of hand, can aid people from being poor to being socially rich and stupendously wealthy in the happiness department. And not getting tucked up in poverty.

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet: @johnbirdswords

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