Since Pope Francis became elected Pope, there has been much hand-wringing about the poor. The dialogue has been dominated by one solution: that the wealthy ought to give more to the poor. Often times, the Pope’s words are twisted into guilt-tripping, a how-bloody-bad-can-the-rich-be-made-to-feel.
Last winter I witnessed something that got me thinking about a root cause of poverty that is rarely discussed.
I was in a Prêt A Manger in central London, it was a mercilessly cold day, and my blue-veined hands were wrapped around a hot cup of soup. I had arrived very early for an appointment because I wanted time to warm up. I was waiting for a writer friend of mine.
From the nearby tube flowed a torrent of people, who flooded the café. They bought trays heaped with sandwiches, steaming beverages and sticky pastries. As often happens in a London café, the munching people caught sight of their watches in between bites of sandwiches, and then rushed out the doors. Soon, it was eerily empty, except for a figure who strode in and took a place at the far side of the café. It was someone that I recognised. It was a man that had been an acquaintance. Once we had some people in common, but many of those same people are not in touch with him anymore – for reasons that will become clear.
He was dressed in the best threads – very costly shoes and clothes. My only reservation on first spotting him was that he was trying too hard to dress like a man in his 20s.
Instinctively, I raised my hand to say hello, because I saw him looking around the restaurant. He didn’t see me, or at least he didn’t let on that he saw me. But with trembling energy, he dipped his hand into a sandwich carton, pulled out a half-chewed egg sandwich and crammed it into his mouth. (You might wonder how I know it was egg – I am one of those abnormal types with exceptional eye sight, and he is not a young man, so I think that his eye sight was not good enough to see me). It seemed as if he hadn’t eaten in a long time. He drained the rest of a white paper cup with coffee stains on the sides. His hand reached out to grasp scraps on another table when the waitress came to clean up. Like a scared cat, he stood bolt-upright and disappeared out the door.
When I was preparing to write this anecdote, I got a good friend to advise me on how I would make it comprehensible for the reader. Incidentally, the friend knows of the fellow described above, but my friend still cautioned, “my fear is that people won’t believe your account. He’s trying to make a good impression by wearing smart clothes, but wouldn’t he fear that getting caught eating scraps would be bad for his reputation? It’s also too disgusting, how did you keep looking at him without your stomach turning? It seems hard to believe, that a man in the best clothes would eat rubbish. ”
But that’s actually the point of my post. I’d like to show why a Londoner clad in such classy attire was eating food waste. It’s from the time of Dickens to detail poverty as happening to people in rags, who have dirtied faces. But to be true to modern life, I think the most insidious poverty is the ‘brown boots and no breakfast’ variety.
I have wanted to leave out a lot of detail, but my –friend-who-is-playing-the-role-of-editor has urged me ‘fill in the gaps’ so as to hold my case together.
The well-dressed-man has several different children with several different women. I’ve known one or two of the mothers, and they don’t have many good things to say about him. He scarcely provided for the children, he spent vast sums on looking good, nights out, or on affairs with younger women. He likes skinny women. He even tried his charms on me once, but I pitied his wife and laughed at him, which hurt his pride.
He hasn’t a lot of friends, having exhausted them by never paying them back or always sticking them with an enormous restaurant or bar bill. His children refuse to talk to him, embittered that they grew up in grinding poverty, while he spent money looking the part of the well-to-do man. As long as he looks the part of the successful gent, then people think of him as doing well.
He wants to satisfy his pride, without caring if his kids have enough.
While I type this, I can hear the voices of older journalism colleagues in my head telling that he’s ‘an extreme case’ and that the story of a man spending money on his mistresses and fine clothes while his children go hungry is ‘an unfortunate stereotype’.
I admit that he’s very far-gone, not even attempting to honour his responsibilities, and probably using credit cards to buy stylish suits. And I see that he is easily pigeonholed.
This may seem a crude, painfully obvious question, but would it not have been better had he spent the money (from his work or even that borrowed from the poor dupes, I mean, his ‘friends’) on the kids that he fathered, rather than on putting the best shirts on his back? Feeding his kids instead of feeding his vanity?
It’s not just men. But it’s easier to objectify feckless men. In my time, I’ve met women who were willing to let their children go wanting, while they spent money on expensive gym membership or regimens for getting slim.
I don’t tar all men with the same brush, there are some men who have been married more than once, and have fathered children with different women, and they do care for their offspring, and see that they have enough. But responsible men and their well-cared-for children are not in question – they are not ‘the poor’.
The well-dressed-man in my story has children who are poor because of his actions. For all our talk about the poor, we are terrified and tongue-tied when it comes to even discussing such situations.
I might be accused of demonising the well-dressed-man. He has a right to spend his money as he sees fit, and it’s his ‘choice’ not to care for his children. He gets let off the hook – but people who have saved money are blamed for the problems of the poor. But is it really better to demonise people who have made an honest crust? I’ll be demonised for demonising the well-dressed-man, but no one will be demonised for demonising the wealthy. #Denial
I’m seeing a difficult trend in that people who have some money set aside are becoming very defensive. It’s harder to coax successful people into the Church, they feel guilty that they are not doing more for the poor because they need their savings ‘for a rainy day’. This might be more relevant to Londoners, because living in London is vastly expensive and it’s a magnificent feat if you can save some money.
I've been trying to interest a friend in becoming Catholic. She's a high-profile, devout Christian that seems to grow resolute that she won’t become Catholic. In the Francis era, she loves the attention given to the poor, the ordinary, and the disabled, but feels that there must be a more rounded approach that doesn’t castigate the rich for problems that are not of their making.