The Imponderability of Poverty

Subheading: The Rich and the Poor in the Age of Abundance or the Swiss Myth

The rich and the poor, the have-nots and have-it-all maintains itself as an interesting theme in the age of abundance and in the age of theoretical man. Recently I found myself strolling the night life of a Balkan capital with a group when while engaged in a conversation about banking with an Austrian colleague two children came begging us for money.

In Berne, the Swiss capital, the beggars are not quite so in-your-face about begging, but begging does go on in either of two obvious modalities. There are the begging racketeers with opaque origins, and then there are the locals. In a country with a mature and efficient welfare system as the Swiss have it, there is no necessity for anybody – national or non-national who is a resident – to take to the streets and beg for food and shelter, or the means to secure such, money. Really, there is not. I have been speaking at length with several social workers at various levels in the city and the canton, and you would be surprised at how well the system has developed the necessary resources for providing for everybody with dignity.

My Austrian colleague and I did our best to convince the two children that we were not going to give them any money – the only English word they knew – and eventually they did give up on the cold blooded freaking foreigners. I for my part did not want to encourage small children being out working that late at night, however I do not have a clue as to why my colleague was equally unresponsive. We both carried out our conversation as though the two children had been nothing more that two pesky mosquitos whirling about.

A few days after returning from the Balkans I was heading back home after having done a bit of grocery shopping when I was approached by a teenager with the all too telling question (in Swiss German) “Can I ask you a question?” That is how begging gets done in the streets of the Swiss capital. It is a question that gets attention. I usually smile and say no, or ignore it as the mood strikes me. If the person asking does not look like too disarrayed or confused, I might actually listen. When this teenage boy asked me the question, I told him that he could ask me the question, however I had a few questions of my own for him.

I asked the teenager about how he had found himself in the need for begging. I got a sad and expected story of death and drugs. I reminded him of our functioning social welfare system and I was told another plausible story. I asked a few more questions, and always I got a good plausible story. Stories only need to be plausible, truth is anyhow nothing that one relates to at the story level, much less at the begging level. I had to reward this boy for his excellent story telling ability, so I offered him to pick something to eat out of my shopping bag. Now, this is when the surprise got me. This boy actually was happy to take some food from my bag.

I got curious anyhow about what this young man’s story was, and had a conversation with one of the social workers in the city a few days later. I was curious as to what was going on. I got confirmation that even if this young man had wrecked havoc of some form or another that may have had him excluded from some social support structure, there is always one last resource and that he needed not to beg for food or shelter. Still what seems apparent is that the resource missing is an intangible social resource that has nothing to do with material resources. The system is there and it is open to all in need, however the intangible need for social integration is often not realized by those in the need. This seems to be the greater poverty of them all, the inability to use what is available, and the need to be destitute. This need is one that is independent of socio-econmic status.

The fact is that in Switzerland there is no physical need for anybody regardless of very materially deprived their situation may be to be begging in the streets. The true poverty is not a material one, it is one of spirit and conscientiousness. When poverty is looked at from this point of view, then it itself is rather abundant. In the time of physical abundance, poverty resides in the spirit.

Are humans ready to eradicate poverty?