October 15, 2008 is Blog Action day, committed to the discussion of poverty.
Where to begin? Causes? Resultant problem? Solutions?
These are just my random thoughts.
I've been a poverty lawyer for more than 30 years. I help low income (and no income) clients get access to justice by having me, a free lawyer, represent them in court. I only handle civil cases, and I work for a private non-profit agency that is one of hundreds of such organizations funded in part by the U.S. government's Legal Services Corporation.
Lawyers are not the first line of defense for poor people. They need food, shelter, clothing, medical care. The children also need free, public, appropriate education. These are critical needs.
But lawyers can help poor people use what little they have to get their basic needs met; can advocate for them to get benefits from programs that may help; and can try to protect them from being cheated out of the basic fairness of being heard when they are involved (or need to be involved) in some litigation.
As with all goods and services needed by the poor, there aren't enough poverty lawyers to do the job. And so we get put into the horrible position of deciding what is a "priority" and whose case isn't important enough for our limited resources.
Some have no sympathy for the poor. They view poverty as a result of laziness or stupidity or personal fault (criminal conduct, bad health habits). There is no doubt that there are lazy and stupid, the criminal and those who don't take care of themselves, among the poor. But these same attributes can be found among the middle class and the rich. These individual traits do NOT explain poverty.
The successful do not want to believe that the system that has allowed them to progress is somehow unfair. There is a resentment by people of means toward the indigent because, if the system is wrong, then their success isn't as meaningful; and a change in the system could also change their own personal fates.
Poverty exists throughout the world, and has existed throughout the centuries. In hindsight, we can easily see that the feudal system kept the masses in poverty and illiteracy --as a system. But we are blinded to the faults of our current economic system.
Our current capitalist system is definitely an improvement over feudalism. We have a larger middle class and some protections for the poor. But there is a staggering discrepancy between those at the top of the economic ladder and those at the bottom, and there is no real way to eliminate the bottom rungs. If those at the bottom manage to move up, someone in the middle will be moving down.
I don't have answers. I don't know what are solutions. (I'm not embracing socialism here because I'm not all that knowledgeable about the ins and outs of such an option.)
I only know that we must keep trying. We must recognize that poverty is with us, not because individuals are weak or bad, but because our system needs improving.