Is it possible to have respect for the poor and homeless?

Updated Wednesday, 3rd May 2017
During a campaign interview, Theresa May speculated on why people might visit foodbanks. The OU's Dr Dave Middleton asks if there's a balance between respectfully giving, and giving respect.

Homeless person on the city street

There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks

This was the British Prime Minister, Theresa May’s response to TV journalist Andrew Marr when asked whether it was right that nurses should have to use food banks.

Whatever the reasons the use of food banks is rising. In 2008, the number of people using food banks was just under 26,000. By 2017, that figure had risen to almost 1.2 million.

Trussel Trust three-day food supplies statistics, showing growth from 25,899 in 2008 to 2009 to 1,182,954 in 2016 to 2017

It is estimated that the UK is the 6th largest economy in the World. It is a highly complex and developed economy and yet the Office for National Statistics estimates that around 6.5% of the population of the UK were in ‘persistent poverty’ in 2014. This amounted to 3.9 million people, the 12th highest figure in the EU.

In 2016, over 93,000 households were assessed as homeless in England, Scotland and Wales. The number of people forced to sleep rough every night in England was 4,134, an increase of 16% since 2015.

The United Kingdom has persistent and long-term poverty leading to homelessness and hunger. The fact that these figures are rising suggests that the underlying causes, whether complex or not, are getting worse rather than better.

It is not overly emotional to argue that it is a national disgrace that we have people, many of whom are in work, forced to use food banks. Nor, is it rhetorical to describe as a national disgrace that each night over 4,000 people are forced to sleep in the streets. But, beyond this what does it say about the kind of society we live in that we are growing accustomed to endemic poverty?

The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states in Article One that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” The Declaration’s preamble starts “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

This treaty, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory, could not be clearer that we recognise an inherent dignity within human beings and commit to ensuring that all human beings, regardless of gender, ethnicity or any other considerations are entitled to be treated with dignity.

What this means in practice is that Governments should not be indifferent to the suffering of others or enact legislation which has the effect of dehumanising or infantilising individuals. Josiah Ober argues that dignity is so important that it should be considered as the third core value of democracy, alongside liberty and equality. He says that to treat somebody in a dehumanising or infantilising way is to undermine their dignity, and thereby to undermine one of the pillars of democracy.

Aurel Kolnai says that“to respect ‘Human Dignity’ is a strict moral obligation”. Now if you are the type of person who is likely to buy a copy of The Big Issue, make donations to a food bank, or give money to people begging on the street, you may feel that you are showing respect to the people concerned. Whilst it is certainly true that you are not deliberately disrespecting them (as those who refuse to acknowledge their existence do), what you are showing is compassion not respect.

The phrase mutual respect is often used in the philosophical literature. Richard Sennett notes that there is something reciprocal in respect that makes it mutual. It suggests that in respecting others, we will be respected ourselves. Respect and being respected clearly matters. Our certainty of our place in the World is shown, in part, by the respect we receive and the fact that others want our respect.

This turns on how we think of respect. In broad terms, we can describe respect as taking another seriously. In the terms of Immanuel Kant, we recognise them as ends in their own right and not just means. When we give money to somebody begging on the street or donate to a food bank are we taking seriously the recipients? Are we treating them as moral equals?

Just to be clear here I am not arguing that it is wrong to give money to people or donate food or indeed to be more pro-active in charity work. In a situation where 4,000 people tonight have nowhere to sleep but the streets, giving them a couple of quid to buy a hot drink or something to eat is the least those of us more fortunate can do. My argument is that it has little to do with respect.

Part of the problem is that the redistribution of our wealth to them is random. Most of us have a limited budget on which to decide whether we can afford to give money or food or not. This means that the money is entirely in our gift. It is an impulsive act of kindness which benefits some random individual at the expense of others who may be poorer or hungrier.

Those who give to charity would no doubt, if they could, solve the problems that cause poverty, hunger and homelessness. Random acts of kindness, whilst better than indifference, do not solve the complex social problems, although they may alleviate some of the symptoms.

By giving charity we are not creating a situation where people’s dignity is maintained. We are not engaging in an act of mutual respect. We are reacting compassionately to the suffering of another, but that other is not our equal in any sense of the word. To be reduced to a state of beggary is to be stripped of your personhood, of your dignity, of your ability to give respect and to be respected.

In a situation of growing poverty and its associated misery it is right that we are prepared to redistribute wealth and one way of achieving this is by those of us who can putting our hands in our pockets from time to time. But, unfortunately this does very little to redistribute wealth from the richest to the poorest or to increase the opportunity for the poor to gain the respect of their fellow citizens. It does not allow for the poor to become fully functioning citizens in their own right. In this way, rather than creating autonomous individuals we foster, all be it unwittingly, a dependency culture and support growing wealth inequality.

In 2016, according to official statistics, the richest 10% of households in the UK held 45% of the nation’s wealth. The poorest 50% owned just 8.7% of the wealth. This is not just a British problem of course. In a report published by Oxfam just prior to the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, it was estimated that the eight richest individuals in the World (all men incidentally) were worth a total of $426bn (£350bn), equivalent to the wealth of 3.6 billion people. Bill Gates, for example, has personal wealth of $87 billion. Meanwhile, people in dire poverty have to beg for the price of a cup of tea.

There is a strong moral case for alleviating individual poverty. There are stronger political reasons why we should care about structural poverty. Jewei Ci says that poverty has two obvious effects. First it affects the subsistence well-being of those denied biological needs for food, shelter etc. It is not the sign of a mature democracy to have citizens in such dire circumstances that they cannot take part in community life. But secondly, it also affects the psychological need for respect.

What he has in mind is what Stephen Darwall has called recognition respect. That is the recognition by our peers that we are a person with interests and a life worth living. It also affects the ability of people to take part in the reciprocal nature of mutual respect. Not because people in poverty are incapable of respecting others, but because their status is so low that they do not attract the respect of their fellow citizens.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that many homeless, poor or hungry people have fallen through a safety net, whose holes seem to get bigger and bigger. They are not without status as a result of their own indolence, they are caught in a poverty trap which they are unable to escape.

These problems cannot be alleviated by the altruistic generosity of those who support charities. They are structural and require structural changes to society in order to put the opportunity to gain respect for every citizen before the interests of a tiny minority to accumulate ever more riches. At the very least at the national level it requires a government who rather than hiding behind meaningless rhetoric about ‘complex causes’ make it a political imperative to do something about inequality.

For those of us who are not members of government, nor ridiculously rich, our options are more limited. But there is a General Election taking place shortly in the UK. If we forget about some of the side issues (such as Brexit and whether the leader of the opposition is a ‘mugwump’) we should use whatever influence we can to raise the issue of poverty on to the political agenda. This means using social media to inform and question. It also means putting politicians on the spot when they go door knocking or appear in public.

In the meantime, we should continue to buy a couple of items extra in our weekly shop for the local food bank, we should give money to desperate people when we are able to and we should support the Big Issue sellers who are trying to escape poverty. But, in doing these things we should not lose sight of the fact that what those in poverty need is to be lifted from poverty, not simply have it alleviated.

Getting rid of poverty is not complex, though it might prove to be difficult. It is a question of having the political will to do so. When those candidates come knocking on your door, why not make your question “what will you do, if elected, to end the misery of poverty?”

This article was originally published on Dave's blog Thinking And Doing, and is republished with permission. You can read the original, with full references, at Thinking And Doing.




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