Unlearn the habit of pathologising the poor

2014-04-13 15:00

“Are you buying this for her?” the cashier asked with a pitying look on her face.

I knew she thought I was being scammed. The thought had crossed my mind, but it didn’t matter.

Ten minutes of speaking to Shaundre was all it took to realise that even if she was scamming me, she’d come to that point through a combination of bad luck and being born black in South Africa which, in itself, is a form of bad luck.

History has it that this country’s social and economic structures are such that this tone of skin is an odds-on predictor of a life of poverty and its attendant misery. If she had viable alternatives, she wouldn’t have asked me.

“You’re not the only one she does this to, you know,” the cashier added. She warned me not to give Shaundre, who was out of earshot, the receipt because “these people” just return the goods to get the cash later when the suckers like me are gone.

Although I hoped a member of the working class, especially a black one, would feel a sense of solidarity or at least empathy, for the struggles of a black, unemployed mother, the cashier’s attitude did not surprise me.

She’d learnt of what “these people” do through this country’s social education programme which, girded in racist undertones, pathologises the behaviour of the poor.

On the Adderley Street lampposts outside, alongside posters encouraging people to “Vote to Win”, were notices from the City of Cape Town’s Give Responsibly campaign.

The campaign tells us civic-minded Capetonians not to give money to those who beg. It says we should send an SMS to a value-added service number to donate R10 to NGOs that work with the homeless because the most that giving cash to people like Shaundre can do is to make living as she does feasible.

At worst, the campaign claims, giving money feeds drug and alcohol habits. It maintains that people in Shaundre’s position have made the conscious choice to beg instead of accessing the range of social programmes offered by NGOs and the municipality.

I’d always thought it perverse to use the effects of deprivation and social neglect, like drug and alcohol abuse and homelessness, to harden people’s attitudes toward the poor.

So I’d been ignoring the campaign and using my discretion when approached by beggars.

Born in Atlantis, where less than a third of the population has completed high school and half the residents get by on less than R737 per month each, barely R100 more than the upper-bound poverty line, Shaundre wasn’t exactly homeless.

She and her two-year-old daughter had been staying with friends or distant relatives, or in shelters, since being evicted for not paying rent after her mother died.

When she approached me, I had only R20 in my wallet. Offered a choice between that and walking with me to buy food and diapers for her daughter, she chose the latter without a moment’s hesitation.

That night, in the comfort of my bed, I began to think about why she did this and the entire notion of choice that underpins how this country is taught to understand the behaviour of the poor.

If I accept Give Responsibly’s assertion that Shaundre had chosen the unglamorous life of begging on the street instead of accessing the programmes offered by NGOs, then the microeconomic explanation for it is that the programmes are not as attractive an option as begging.

Shaundre had behaved no differently from a CEO who, when faced with a choice between selling a product with a low margin and another with a high margin, chooses the latter to make the company more money.

That the higher-margin product might have a legally permissible, yet adverse, social effect?–?say, increasing the incidence of dental cavities in children?–?isn’t something we generally expect to deter the CEOs from their choice.

Yet this rational behaviour, which earns CEOs praise and billions in bonuses, is considered a social problem that ought to be stamped out when exhibited by people like Shaundre. And the state initiates and sponsors campaigns to ensure that it is. This is what I mean by pathologising the behaviour of the poor.

If the City of Cape Town wants to make progress possible, as its new motto claims, it should start with scrapping campaigns like Give Responsibly and focus on making social programmes for the poor more attractive than begging.

Shaundre never did ask me for the receipt. When we parted ways, I told her about the cashier’s warning.

It was as if I had driven a dagger through her heart.

With tears welling in her eyes, she told me she wished people really understood what it was like to be in her desperate situation.

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