Monday, 11 August 2014

Battling with Bias

Some people are poor because they spend money on cigarettes. Some people are poor because they spend money on alcohol. Some people are poor because they spend all day watching television, rather than going out to work.


Well, I’m not convinced.

Sure, there are people living in poverty who smoke and there are people living in poverty who drink. There are people living in poverty who spend time watching television. I have yet; however, to meet a single person who is poor BECAUSE they smoke, drink or watch daytime television.

Poverty is multifaceted and complex. Systems and circumstances beat people down and tie them to the unrelenting cycle that is poverty.

Before I began working with the Poverty Truth Commission, I found it relatively easy to make unfair judgements. I’m sure I still make unfair judgements. I applied for the role because I was passionate about helping those who really needed help but was sure there were plenty people out there who just really needed to help themselves. I cringe now. What I was saying is that there is a deserving poor and an undeserving poor.

For me, one of the most powerful messages of the Poverty Truth Commission is that we cannot make judgements or decisions about people’s lives without really getting to know people with first-hand experience of the situation. I’ve been privileged in that my role has allowed me to get to know people experiencing poverty: to spend time with them on the good days and the bad; to be the first person they speak to when, already struggling, they have received news their benefits will be cut; to sit down for a good old catch up over a cup of tea.

This insight, and more importantly the people I have met, has challenged my biases. People experiencing poverty aren’t scroungers. Many categorically refuse to visit a Food Bank; it is preferable to go many days without eating. They aren’t lazy.  It is saddening the number of people I have met whose health (or more accurately, ill health) has meant they are genuinely currently unable to work.

Some people are poor despite being hard working. Some people are poor despite positively contributing to society. Some people are poor despite being kind hearted and generous.

Yes, there are people who make unfortunate choices but we cannot blame people living in poverty. The statements I opened with (about people living in poverty smoking, drinking and watching television) are fictional, based largely on media portrayals. The later statements (about people in poverty being hard working and kind hearted) are factual, based on real people who have generously shared their stories with me.

The reality I have seen is that people living in poverty go out to work every day despite being paid minimum wage on insecure contracts with no holiday entitlement or pension package. They volunteer whilst looking for paid employment. They are unable to work because they are caring for their grandchildren whose parents are unable to do so.

Next time you are ready to pass judgement, I challenge you: think about someone you actually know in the situation and ask yourself “does my conclusion match their reality?” If it doesn’t, the chances are it doesn’t apply more broadly either. If you cannot think of anyone in the situation, perhaps ask yourself “am I really in a position to pass judgement?”

Siobhan Murray

Administration and Communications Assistant, The Poverty Truth Commission

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