International Day for the Eradication of Poverty

Let's talk about poverty and inequality today

An elderly rag and bone woman picking up a cardboard box outside Geylang Bahru food centre. PHOTO: ST FILE

Today, Oct 17, is the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, declared 25 years ago in December 1992, by the United Nations General Assembly:

"On the 17th of October each year, we come together to demonstrate the strong bonds of solidarity between people living in poverty and people from all walks of life, and our commitment to work together to overcome extreme poverty and abuse of human rights through our individual and shared commitments and action. An important commitment is to honour the human dignity of people living in poverty and to fight to end the discrimination, humiliation and social exclusion they suffer."

For some years, I have been doing research to better understand the lives of low-income Singaporeans. I visited cramped homes with poor living conditions; learnt about the difficulties my respondents had balancing wage work and care responsibilities; heard how hard they work for little pay. I saw their children's challenges in school and witnessed their struggles for dignity in our society.

Contrary to popular belief in some circles, there are people living in poverty in contemporary Singapore.

Yet, I ended up writing a book not just about poverty, but also inequality.

At the same time as I witnessed my respondents' hardships, I was living my own life. I have the same needs -for a home, a job, caregivers for my child, for getting housework done and meals cooked. Moving between the worlds of my respondents and myself, I became more aware that our needs are met differently, not because we do things radically differently, but because we face different social conditions.

Inequality is about how people need the same things and indeed do similar things but face very different outcomes.

When we talk about the low-income experience in Singapore, we must locate it in the context of our wealthy city. Doing this prompts the important question: Why? How is it that people have the same needs and do the same things but have different outcomes?

To answer this, we must think and talk about power and the role of systems - not just individual choices - in creating outcomes. "Empowering" the poor is typically framed as being about changing their mindsets. There's widespread belief that, once they change their mindsets-towards themselves, employment, parenting - they will act differently and their lives will improve. While mindset change can help people cope better, it rarely changes lived realities.

Beyond an individual's personal circumstance lie social conditions and social structures. Power is a material condition, not a frame of mind. Feelings of empowerment are an outcome of actual ownership of power, not the cause. One can think "I can do this. I must try". Many low-income people do.

But if one lacks actual power-control over time; bargaining power with employers, teachers, social workers, landlords, creditors; voice to get one's interests represented in social policies - merely changing how one thinks about oneself will not change these realities. The notions of "empowerment" and "choice" are useless when people do not have genuine options.

All of us in society should care about poverty and inequality.

During my research, I often met children who were immediately marked as falling behind as they entered Primary 1.

My own life is in a social milieu where children enter Primary 1 able to read and write. In one ear, I hear parents worrying they can't help with homework or pay for tuition; and in my other ear, I hear parents complain about driving their children from one enrichment activity to another.

Our education system searches for and rewards precocity. Centring on high-stakes exams, it defines merit narrowly, and it leads those who can afford it to try to acquire certain qualities through the private shadow education market. This creates a high-pressure environment for adults and children of all class backgrounds. For parents and children from low-income households, in particular, the outcome is to be made to feel perpetually like failures.

We will all grow old in a society populated by other people's children. Every future adult should have the opportunities to find her/his strengths. Children in low-income neighbourhoods have just as much potential as those in my own social circles.

They have qualities I admire, often missing in children like my own - independence, generosity, grit. These are qualities worth recognising and nurturing. We must give them more time to learn, without marking them as weak from the start, without demoralising them and their parents.

There are families living with real hardship in Singapore society. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is a necessary reminder to us to recognise and honour the human dignity of everyone. Oct 17 is a day for us to consider our shared humanity and the importance of our connectedness to one another; and it is a time for us to pause to evaluate if those of us who live in comfort have built adequate solidarity with those who don't.

Because poverty is not just about poverty but also about inequality, this is not a problem about "them" but a problem for "us".

Oct 17 is a day that serves as an annual cue to review: There are values we aspire to, of justice and equality - how are we doing?

There remains much to be done. Let's all get to work together.

•The writer is associate professor and head of sociology at Nanyang Technological University, and author of This Is What Inequality Looks Like (Ethos Books, forthcoming next year).

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline Let's talk about poverty and inequality today. Subscribe