by Timothy Lim (15S06A), Lin Qingxun (15S05A)
What is poverty?
To many of us, poverty is something we encounter only in an abstract form. We know of its existence, we see it in the media, and occasionally we see signs of it on our island. Yet, it seems to be something we discuss at great length, without ever ameliorating its ruinous impacts. In spite of all the public debate, it appears to be that most people in developed countries have but the poorest understanding of what it is like to live at the bottom and have the weakest grasp of the concept of social (im)mobility.
The UN approaches this subject as holistically as it can. It defines poverty as the “lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods; hunger and malnutrition; ill health; limited or lack of access to education and other basic services; increased morbidity and mortality from illness; homelessness and inadequate housing; unsafe environments and social discrimination and exclusion. It is also characterised by lack of participation in decisionmaking and in civil, social and cultural life. It occurs in all countries: as mass poverty in many developing countries, pockets of poverty amid wealth in developed countries, loss of livelihoods as a result of economic recession, sudden poverty as a result of disaster or conflict, the poverty of low-wage workers, and the utter destitution of people who fall outside family support systems, social institutions and safety nets” (UN, 1995).
In simple terms, poverty is deprivation — financial, emotional, or otherwise — relative to a certain expected basal standard of human living; an expectation that varies from place to place.
However comprehensive the definitions, they still fail to capture the essence of the daily struggles a breadwinner faces while raising a family on US$10.00 (PPP) a day (the effective poverty line in the USA), much less the difficulties endured by one who earns only US$0.60 (PPP) a day (the typical poverty line in sub-Saharan Africa). Facing these facts, we feel shock, incredulity, and, we’d like to think, a deep sense of compassion and moral outrage. But can we profess true empathy if we have never had to think if there would be food on the table? Herein lies the great risk: that despite our best intentions, the poor end up becoming a particular group in the community on which tokenistic compassionate acts are conducted, a sort of object to reify feelings of pity and sympathy instead of real people thrust into poverty, by what is often circumstances beyond their control.
No Shoes Day was the Community Advocates’ previous attempt at navigating these realities as a symbol of extreme depravity. Some felt that we had leaned too far in one direction, becoming too ‘slacktivist’ and retrograding the anti-poverty cause. While we disagree, this year’s Heartware committee has taken a critical look and decided to heed the well-worn words of Atticus Finch: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
This year, instead of taking off your shoes, we urge you to do more to understand the complexity of problems relating to social mobility. This time, let’s stand in their shoes.
Why the shift?
2015 marks the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals, the most successful humanitarian project in the history of mankind. Absolute poverty was halved to just 600 million by 2010, with the number going down daily. Today, most of the poor have soles on their feet, food to eat, even shelter over their heads. However, they have little else. Relative poverty and low social mobility continue to rob lives of dignity and hopes of progress.
This is the kind of poverty that you and I both know exists under the burnish of Singapore’s success story. Our very nation has the highest Gini coefficient in the developed world, at 0.47. Yet, it is still poorly understood, possibly because social issues have been swept under the carpet in the onward march toward development. On our Nation’s 50th birthday, we thus felt it the right time to change the heartbeat of Heartware, narrow its scope to a country we all can recognize, and truly empathize with the less fortunate who dwell in our midst.
What is there to empathize with, you may ask? A great deal that we do not consider.
Let’s take healthcare, for instance. For many, the alphabet soup of policies and health care subsidies seems rather natural and easy to follow. We are familiar with means testing, Medisave, Medishield, Class A wards, Class B wards etcetera. We are also well aware of the subsidies and helplines available to us.
This is not so for many of the needy, who barely read about or understand these policies. Prior to the establishment of Social Service Offices in 2013, hundreds of families were not receiving the subsidies and training programs available to them for no other reason than the fact that they were unaware of their eligibility. Families continue to fall through the cracks.
In one of our members’ time as an intern at NCSS (National Council of Social Service), he heard many accounts of middle-aged singles who were unaware of free training courses on how to properly care for their ailing parents, and so hurt themselves in the process.
On the issue of means testing, a healthcare professional once recounted how the weighing of people into costs and benefits robs them of their dignity. After spending one year refusing to seek medical treatment, a poor single, unemployed mother finally turned up in hospital to apply for government funding, but was treated scornfully by frontline staff. When asked to fill the form to disclose what little assets she had, she felt deeply uncomfortable and ridiculed, but reluctantly gave the details. However, front-line staff were adamant that she show her last income statements, of which she had lost or had none. Desperate and insulted, the lady walked out in tears and without aid. (This sounds apocryphal but is nonetheless true. Identities have been concealed for confidentiality reasons.)
The health care professional then concluded with a statement that the poor have nothing left but their dignity. And yet even this was taken away.
These situations arose out not of malice, but sheer ignorance. Nonetheless, these accounts are sobering and highlight our persistent ignorance of forgotten groups in society.
With this understanding, the Heartware committee has lined up a series of events that will attempt to bring you new insights and experiences, in hopes that we can become a more supportive society for all.
$5 a day is what 400,000 Singaporeans are left with after paying for utilities, school, rent, loan installments, and healthcare. Given this money to spend on your daily expenses in school, how much will you be able to save over 3 days? And at this rate, will you be able to afford modern-day necessities like a smartphone, that occasional movie ticket, or that treat at 18 Chefs?
We are also providing a handy chart for you to realize how long it would take you to save up for just some of these little luxuries. You are then invited to take the practical step of donating to the children funded by the Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund so that they may also enjoy these luxuries.
These are just concerns you may think of as a 17 or 18 year old. For a real family, weighty decisions have to be made daily: the opportunity cost of that very same meal is one week of medicine, or one week of running electricity.
2. Get Involved. Book Donation by Dignity Mama
We spoke of how poverty becomes a tokenistic idea when referred to from a distance. This book donation is a rare opportunity for you to directly interact with beneficiaries when they come down on Monday, as they personally collect our pre-loved reading materials. Books donated will be sold at second-hand stalls run by the intellectually or physically disabled, who would otherwise find it difficult to find a job due to discrimination in the workplace.
Your donated books will, in this way, be tools of personal empowerment, giving beneficiaries a shot at greater social mobility. We hope that through sharing in their kindred experiences, you can get involved in a way that goes further than dollars and cents.
3. Face the Facts. Exhibition in the Canteen Walkway
There is a need to be familiar with realities. As illustrated above, actions with the best of intentions can have the most unthinkable consequences if we do not realize the personal situations that the poor face. This exhibit in the canteen walkway will make use of personal anecdotes as well as powerful 3D statistics to help you visualize the disparities in our country’s socio-economic realities in ways you’ve never seen before.
As a link to the food challenge, a photo exhibition inspired by The Poverty Line exhibit by Stefen Chow will show the amount of food you can typically purchase at the local unofficial poverty line of S$1500 a month. Finally, a curated video adapted from the web series “Don’t Call Us Poor” will also shed more light on how life is really like under the poverty line.
4. Step Up: Direct Service in collaboration with Silver Homes Project
Having already ascertained that poverty is a complex and obstinate issue, lip service is meaningless. After Heartware is over, you may want to participate in a Home Improvement Project that we have put together in collaboration with the Silver Homes Project Committee. The home is where all the different factors that will be discussed in Heartware come together, creating the nexus of socio-economic factors that contribute to poverty. But is also where it can be broken most effectively. Sign up for an eye-opening and humbling experience at this link.
All of these activities will be happening from 6-8 April, with the exception of the direct service which is on the 11th.
There is something we can all do about the poverty that we see around us. Heartware is just but one step in the shoes of the destitute, and we sincerely hope you will support us in our endeavours, for poverty is the true killing of a Mockingbird.