By Naomi Theinert –
Deep down I believe that the life we live is strongly influenced by the choices we make — choices that each one of us is facing on a daily basis. Now, ideally once we are adults, these choices are made consciously and responsibly to ensure our own well-being and that of those we care for, and of course to not harm others around us. How does this relate to poverty? Well the question I want to focus on is: can poverty be simply a result of wrong life choices? Is poverty caused by a series of daily choices made wrongly and consequently leading to one’s own demise and that of the ones we care for? Personally, I find this a tough question to even speak aloud, especially in a country such as Great Britain, without sounding insensitive, ignorant, or naive. Yet, it is a question essential to ask, in order to understand prejudice, the stigma associated with people living in poverty, and on top of poverty also the consequent or even pre-existing social isolation.
When I walk around in a normal, relatively big city in Germany, my home country, and now the UK, where I am currently living, I see people — and people. There are businessmen and women, dressed in fancy clothing, ready for work, maybe on the phone with a coffee “to go” in the other hand. Then there are cyclists on their way to work. And especially in London, many people choose to run to work apparently. Occasionally, there are tourists taking photos of all buildings which seem interesting, even if it is just in the slightest way. There are all kinds of people, from all kinds of backgrounds. There are also beggars on the streets. Not many people seem to notice them. Many simply look the other way. Let´s face it, we live in a superficial world and every person is consciously or sub-consciously judged by their appearance. So if one person is of a quite good background with enough means to build and live a stable life, what are they to think of others in their trainers and jogging clothes with dirt stains, neglected hygiene, and maybe even a cigarette in one hand. Examining my own thinking, there are many stereotypes filling my head, thoughts which automatically categorize people simply by the way they look and drawing premature conclusions about what kind of people they are. So what comes into your mind, when you see people on the streets, in buses, or in shops? Maybe stereotypes and prejudice? Maybe compliments and admiration? Maybe your own insecurity? Or are you maybe too tired from the day to notice what is going on around you? Whatever thoughts you might have, they remain your thoughts until you know those people around you, until you talk to them, and take the time and open mind to listen to their story.
To get back to my original question, the idea of life choices comes in again. There are three angles worth taking under consideration. Firstly, what choices brought the people around you, who you might judge, into their current situation and what influence did they have over the choices being made? Secondly, what choices do you have to understand better to discover why people are where they are? And thirdly, what choices brought you to this point in your own life and what influence did you have over the choices being made? While many developed countries are indeed thriving and purport to offer equal opportunities for all, the reality is that there are very few places where this is successfully accomplished. Why is that? Is it the system´s fault for not providing opportunities equally? Or is it a flaw within society, within us? Is it within our human nature to judge and assume certain things about the people around us which prevents us from giving them a chance? As shown by a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation* on the costs of child poverty for individuals and society, growing up in a deprived environment can lead to lifelong implications regarding health — both physical and mental — personal development and education. All of these are essential for securing a stable and secure life so as not to fall into poverty and unhealthy living habits. So, put in simpler terms, the place we are born in, and the family we are born into shape the people we become. And who chose they place they were born? Who can say they earned their family´s fortune and well-being rightfully simply by existing? Who deserves their family´s misfortune simply by existing? No one, I would say.
So why judge others for circumstances they did not ask for, nor want, or cause? The idea might cross your mind that adults in poverty probably did cause their situation because when we come of age, we also have the duty of taking matters into one’s own hands. However, can you know with absolute certainty whether or not people have ever gotten the chance to take matters into their own hands unless you have listened to them, and talked to them, with an open mind? Is it fair to make assumptions based simply on their looks and behaviour at one given moment?
Instead of making assumptions, how about we, as a society, no matter where we live, start by greeting each other with a smile and instead of judgement? Why not start with a conversation? Life is indeed all about choices — which can mean choosing to overcome the stereotypes in our heads by getting to know each other. There is only so much one person can do; yet together there is so much more we can all do, for each other.
* Conducted by Julia Griggs and Robert Walker in 2008.