There are different kinds of poverty and they require different solutions, writes Digby Anderson

Do you wish to know whether a particular bishop is serious and sincere or up to no good? Here is a little test. It may not help on all matters but it does cover social teaching and that is what so many of them are so keen to talk about. The way people react to poverty tends to tell us more about them than about it. Simply find a statement where they go on about the poor (the ones here not in the third world). Then apply the test to reveal their motivations. Are they saints sincerely and practically trying to help poor people or they merely keen to show off their compassionate credentials? The test is called disaggregation.

Reasons for poverty

The sincere and practical speaker will immediately disaggregate the poor, making distinctions between different sorts of poverty. There are as many reasons for being poor as for being rich. Some poor people are temporarily poor, between jobs or during an impermanent illness or after a costly event such as divorce.

Others have been poor all their lives and their parents too. Long-term and transgenerational poverty may give rise to a `culture of poverty: Again, some poor people may live in an area which is `structurally poor’ and be unable to move to find work. Others may be able to move but refuse to do so. Skills can become outdated. Time and place can work together. Some areas have seasonal p overty, notably seaside towns. Here not working maybe `normal’ during some months of the year. The young poor may have different problems from the elderly. Either can be deserving or not.

Group and individual factors

Some of the poor are poor as a result of external forces such as low wages or the benefit system. The latter may impoverish because it gives too little or because it gives too much — in comparison with wage rates and results in welfare dependency. Poverty may be caused not only through low income but incompetent expenditure, failure to budget, ill-judged credit as well as `addictions’ to alcohol or drugs. These are the behavioural causes of poverty. Principal among them is lone parenthood caused by male abandonment, divorce or no-marriage or other arrangement. Such behaviour leaves usually young women on low or no wages.

The difference among the poor is not only between this or that group. It can come down to the difference between individuals. Ordinary priests and parishioners do not only look at the incomes of those who ask for their help. They differentiate between those who will use help to buy bread and those who will buy drugs. State welfare systems are not much good at such differentiation.

Varied definitions

And ordinary people think of poverty as the lack of money to buy the necessities of life. Politicians, especially Eurocrat politicians, think poverty is relative. He is poor because he has less than someone else, perhaps he has only half the average Euro-income, only one car per family. And even more expansive politicians use poverty to describe a state where lack of income or other factors exclude someone from the mainstream of life whatever that may be. Such ideas are not unworthy of people’s consideration but they too must be disaggregated from old-fashioned poverty.

There is another way in which common moral sense disaggregates the poor. The kind soul may distinguish between those who have a greater and lesser call on his particular charity. This `particularistic ethics’ is sneered at by ethicists or at least those following Kant who think ethics must be universalistic. More fools them, Decent Christian people know they owe more to their own mother than someone else’s; Our Lord was especially solicitous for his Mother. We also know we have a duty to our physical neighbours. The poor of the parish must come before those of Bangladesh, perhaps not instead of but before, Our Lord helped the poor he came across, as did his Good Samaritan,

Practical help

Some of these details may be contentious but the general drift is surely commonsense. There are different sorts of poverty. Each calls for understanding and help. Practical help must fit the different causes of poverty. Therefore the sincere person who would practically help the poor is under a moral obligation to disaggregate them, decide which to help and how. What is the opposite of disaggregation? It is eagerly and undiscriminately to collect every instance of poverty, deliberately ignore the variety of types and causes and herd the lot into a category, the poor. Because the category now includes so many different people and conditions it will be a large number. And that is what this sort of spokesperson for the poor wants, the more poor the better. By showing just how many people are poor and in need of help and by speaking for them all (though probably not for any one of them), he has elevated his own importance. He may also have made the problem of poverty so big that it is beyond private charity and `demands government intervention.

So the test reveals show-offs and politicos for what they are, no friends of any of the poor. I leave it to you to apply the test to Bishop this and Cardinal that, But when you’ve outed the blustering ego, don’t forget yourselves to do a spot of disaggregation and find someone in particular to help.