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My tough manifesto for ending poverty

Big Issue founder John Bird says his harsh early life taught him that many things done for the needy just keep people poor

By on Thursday, 3 January 2013

A man stands beside a bed at a centre for the homeless (PA)

A man stands beside a bed at a centre for the homeless (PA)

The first Christmas I spent in a Catholic convent I longed for the slums of my birth. The nuns who got us up in the morning, got us washed, fed and then to church, were a poor replacement for the mother, father and brothers I was no longer with.

I was distraught, aged seven, the product of a broken London Irish family. Where were the people I loved?

The nuns could never fill the gap left by my broken home, with its mice, rats, earwigs and damp walls. The pristinely clean convent, the clean beds and the clean clothes could not make up for the “hominess” of our hovel.

And the generous portions of food: St Vincent’s Convent, run by the Sisters of Charity, was a 10 star hotel compared to slummy Notting Hill. And yet there was not a moment when I did not want to escape it and go back to the shivering under-fed coldness of poverty.

Since those days when poverty was big in my life I have been asking many questions. Why? Why poverty? Why bring children into the world that you cannot afford to keep? What is the answer to being poor, and how can you reduce it, or eradicate it, in the world?

After three years of St Vincent’s Convent for orphans and broken families, I was returned to a family home. And the trouble began. I started stealing, starting fires, truanting from school. Not only was I poor, but I added to the problems of my life by breaking the law. For quite a few years I was one of those troubled people who come and go in the prison system.

But all the while I was asking the big question: would I have been a different person if poverty had not been the condition into which I was born? Could I have made a go of it, even though I was poor?

Eventually I got out of poverty by work and raising a family. And then 21 years ago I started The Big Issue. Ever since, I’ve tried to get more and more people out of crime and wrongdoing through work and education.

But the big question still rings in my head: what can we do about poverty? How can we drive it from the face of the earth?

My new book, The Necessity of Poverty, has grown out of my life’s work. It is a small book, a kind of manifesto. It looks at poverty not from above, like an observer, but from having been a part of it. It does not come to poverty as someone who decided to dedicate his life to people less fortunate than themselves. Rather, having lived through poverty and seen how many things are done for the poor that in fact keep people poor, it is time to speak out, to try to help the poor get out of poverty, rather than leaving them there, stewing in need and desperation.

My book is a tough call for people to re-think many things. For instance, when you give money to the poor, are you actually helping them? Are you helping them move out of poverty? Or are you maintaining them in slightly better conditions than if you gave them nothing?

Is your giving in order to make yourself feel better, rather than changing the circumstances of the receiver? For we all know that a good Catholic is expected to think of those without. And, in fact. the Christmas message is always about remembering the poor at times of our joy and celebration.

My book is tough because it asks tough questions about the process of giving, arguing that giving changes little in the lives of the poor. Using the words of The Big Issue: is it a “hand up, or a hand out”?

If you consider the way that state benefit is used you will see what I mean. Benefit is for “getting by”. It is never for bringing a change in your life, so that you can acquire skills, or get to college, or start your own business. In fact, it is little more than money to warehouse you.

Because so many generations of governments have given up on people in need, social security has virtually turned into a kiss of death to your ambition and your exit out of poverty.

Governments have created a new class of people who are outside of society: workless, broken. and lost to ambition and social improvement.

Hovering around them are countless “supposed” defenders of the poor, who see nothing wrong in warehousing people in ghettos of inactivity.

Having lived through poverty, and exited it through my faith and some education while in the prison system, I know that there are thousands of people who could have done the same. But they got caught on social security. And there they languish, even members of my own family.

The days of an open-handed state will soon be a thing of the past. Governments and their agencies will increasingly push and bully people off benefits and into work – often poorly paid work, often work that will limit even further the opportunity of social improvement. What was once a sympathy for the poor has led the poor into the trap of dependency and as state cash runs dry the poor are truly on their own.

My book suggests that we use the little money left more wisely, and ask this simple question: if we give to those in need, will it help to get them out of need? Or will it simply warehouse them in poverty?

Churches, political parties and the general public have to stop giving to tie the poor up, and start giving to allow the poor a chance to fly.

This is difficult to contemplate as money becomes in short supply. But still we must ask the big question: are we here to end poverty or keep the poor dependent?

I personally believe we need to focus on “hand-ups”, not “handouts”. We have to tailor our giving to transform lives, and that has been the biggest lesson of my long struggle in and around the poor.

I hope you get to read my simple, tough little book. It took a lifetime to write, but takes a morning to read. Let us truly wish the best possible future to the poor – and that is to get out of it.

The Necessity of Poverty by John Bird is published by Charles Glass Books, a new imprint of Quartet Books (Charlesglass.net, 020 7304 4100) priced £8

  • Asah Barnabas

    “My tough manifesto for ending poverty”, is a thought provoking piece of literary work. The big question , “Are we out to end poverty or to maintain it?” Is to be answered. Hand-ups or handouts.He is writing as an insider.Hence those involve in social work for the poor must reconsider the various methods use in assisting them.

  • IntellectGetOne

    Like the term “marriage” the person who controls the definition of a thing, gets to control the thing itself.

    If I ask the vast majority of people in any country, or the people we call the low-information voter here in the USA, about government aid programs to the poor, they would predominantly say the programs ALREADY focus on being “hands-up” and not “handouts.”  We have always been told that.

    Those very same people will read your book and think you are on the same page as they are.  They will violently agree with you — and then spend the money exactly as it has been spent. 

    Likewise, if you listen to speeches in governments around the world at the time an aid package is being voted and passed those speeches are always, without fail, about helping the poor with a “hand-up.”

    Which brings us back to the very same problem of who gets to define what is a handout vs. what is a hand-up.  And, hate to break it to you, but it isn’t you.  It’s the government.

    I’m sure your book is well intentioned and sincere.  But until we recognize that there is a fundamentally immoral thing happening when a government takes money from one person (under the threat of prison and fines) solely to skim some off for administration and then give the remaining part to another person solely to satisfy the legally established heartfelt compassion of the government, we will always have a failure in serving the poor.  You cannot right a problem with a wrong.

    What we need is to build a culture where more well-off people take an ACTIVE and INTERESTED role in helping others around them VOLUNTARILY. 

    When we get there, or as we call it — when people practice Christianity — then we will resolve the problem of the poor to a far greater degree (although we will always have the poor with us).

    In reality, our churches and ourselves have abdicated our personal responsibility to the government in the hopes of salving our natural law response to help one another. 

  • kentgeordie

    It’s pretty clear what we should NOT do about poverty: give money to poor people, thereby creating dependency. It’s a lot harder to know what we SHOULD do, given that, as John shows in the article, the only person who can solve the problem is the victim.
    If we make it very difficult for people to be poor, many will rise to the challenge, but many more will succumb to the difficulty of it all.
    I look forward to reading the book and finding John’s answer.

  • Shirley J. Schultz

    I try to explain to people that Scriptures tell us that when we are judged at the General Judgment, Jesus will tell us that those who fed the hungry, sheltered the homeless, clothed the naked, etc. are blessed and to enter the Kingdom prepared for us from the beginning of the world.  He is not going to be talking to nations, or states, or cities; He will be talking to individuals.  Which proves my point:  we as individuals are supposed to care for the poor, not governments.  

  • silverlady

    Mr. Romney was roundly criticized for speaking about the poor who have become dependent on their benefits. We are becoming a welfare state of big government and it will lead to more poverty, dependence and hopelessness.

  • Robin Leslie

    Poverty was abating in the late 1970s prior to the neo-liberal putsch under Thatcher, now it has
    extended into the middle class, chained in debt and tied to their baggage of historical acoutrements.
    The New Serfdom in the One Party, neo-liberal Plutocratic State, has developed a new form of poverty
    in which the poor are literally owned by the rich and their parliamentary thugs. The entire argument around dependency is about coercive slavery and abusive ownership of poor persons. We are not talking about ‘fairness’ or ‘deficit reduction’ here for the only deficit reduction is the deficit in humanity that the criminal wealthy owe to the poor, a debt they can never repay. We are talking about a
    system of exchange and ownership that trades in violence and slavery, and not only the slavery of the poor, this violence has also enslaved natural creation and poisoned everything it touches.
    Neo-liberalism is the most toxic and deadly ideological weapon that humankind has ever had in hand
    and we should rid ourselves of it with speed!!

  • Robin Leslie

    Minister Duncan-Smith is, supposedly, a ‘devout’ Catholic who frequently attends Mass. As a Catholic
    I would like to know which of his policies meets the criteria of the Church’s teaching on Justice, Peace and the integrity of Creation? Taking away the collective provisions set aside, since the New Deal in 1945, for the relief of need, is a moral crime and an act of theft! Duncan-Smith has also evicted poor
    people (we do not talk of ‘the poor’ we talk of poor persons or poor people, they are not objects and share our humanity) from rich inner city ‘neighbourhoods’ (though how wealthy ghettoes can conceivably be called ‘neighbourhoods I cannot imagine) and dumped them in ghettoes of poverty in peripheral local authorities.
    Can Minister Duncan-Smith please tell me how he relates his behaviour to Rerum Novarum for example, or to the Sermon on the Mount?  Is he a Neo-Nazi? Or is he simply ill with psychosis awaiting Sectioning under the Mental Health Act?
    Some Catholic!! Some Christian!!

  • Robin Leslie

    The Catholic Church in the UK (and the USA) of which I am a member is an unashamedly middle-class Church wedded to the anti-Christian claims of private ownership and rank
    individualism, precisely the ethos in which humanist rationalism and a vacuous open-ended
    liberal Catholicism thrive. The Church has become a prop for the neo-liberal social order.
    Perhaps the most revealing thing about the last 30 years is that traditional Catholics and
    left-wing Catholics, often wrongly assumed to be opposed to one another are in remarkable agreement about the Christian faith and of Catholic tradition. This unity between these two
    poles of the faith a living traditional liturgy and a vibrant church of  poor people (poor in every sense) was shown most clearly by Fr. Michael Hollings throughout his life, he embodied
    a respect for the traditional liturgy and a self-sacrificing pastoral ministry incomparable in its depth of humanity. Needless to say he was traduced by Rebecca Wade (now Brookes of the phone hacking fame) suspended from the priesthood by Cardinal Hume and found innocent
    of all accusations made by some anonymous miscreant seminarian, a claim 30 years in
    the making.
    Fr. Hollings died as a result of these lies and the hapless (or deliberate) connivance of
    Westminster diocesan liberals whose role in the process of  his suspension must remain highly ambiguous to say the least!
    If the Western Church wishes to renew itself it has to follow the Latin American Church
    and abandon its servility to the middle-classes, it has to become the Church of the poor. There should be no need to ask how the Church can prevent poverty, such a question would never be asked if the Church was already a Church in which poor people were the Church. The reason why poor people have walked away from the Church is because the Church walked away from them after Vatican 2!
    The radical prophetic left and the traditional right need to unite against the middle-class liberals who have been the gravediggers of the Catholic tradition for 50 years now!

  • John McCarthy

    It is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.