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Anti-Poverty Week 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is a sad but timely reminder that poverty is always about people and their suffering, and only secondly about statistics and economic settings, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ.

It is easy to think about poverty as a huge problem, too big to solve and so not worth thinking about. We let it slip into the back of our minds. Anti-Poverty Week encourages us to go beyond this view to recognise that it touches ourselves.

This change of attitude is especially urgent in the year of Coronavirus. Australia entered this year with many of our people already on the edge of poverty through shamefully low unemployment benefits and through insecure casual employment. The need to keep safe from the virus has cost many people their work, and if they do not receive decent support from the Government they and their families will struggle to eat, to find housing and to live decent lives connected with society.

Poverty next year will not be something out there, but something that we will brush up against in our families and in our local streets.

This year, too, poverty has become personal. It is not a problem but wears the faces of people whom we know, have met or whom we see and hear through the media. Poverty could wear the face of ourselves, of our children. Anti-Poverty Week, of course, reminds us that this has always been the case: poverty is always about people and their suffering, and only secondly about statistics and economic settings. It is about hunger, anxiety about where the next meal will come from for ourselves and our children, shame at not being able to afford the money needed for our daughter’s school camp, the humiliation of spending nights in the family car while seeking accommodation.

As we reflect on the human cost of poverty we are reminded that human flourishing is about enlarged possibility – to live, to have access to medical care, to build new relationships, to find work, to travel, to study, to join community groups, to develop our talents. Poverty is about the loss of possibility. We struggle to exist, we scrimp on health care, we move from place to place so that our children find it hard to learn and make friends, any work we have is insecure, we cannot explore our world, we lose friends and have only temporary acquaintances. We lose our names. And our nation loses its true wealth. At Jesuit Social Services, we see the face in the vulnerable young people with whom we work. In their childhood, many have been deprived of so much. Through our accompaniment that they may find possibilities.

That is the human face of poverty. Its healing is also expressed in human faces. The face of the person who stops to talk, who is interested in our lives, who can put us in touch with kind and generous people, with agencies we may not have known about, and who care for us as people. That interest and affection is the first step to finding new possibilities.

Poverty, of course, also has a political face. Societies in which many people live in poverty while the wealth of the few increases have neglected their charge to care for the good of all their people, including especially the most vulnerable. Governments have the duty to ensure that all families, all people can live decent lives. Nations have the duty to ensure that prosperity is shared across the world, and that their own prosperity is not built on the poverty of others.

Poverty is the fruit of selfishness. Its healing comes through solidarity.