Tuesday, March 21, 2006

What is poverty?

What does a man need to live? Water, food, shelter, say some. Mobile phones, say others.
There is genuine disagreement about what poverty is. The official definition sets it at earning below 60% of median income after housing costs, which means that the poor are quite literally always with us, because the threshold rises as earnings rise.

The face of genuine poverty, however, is more subtly veiled by debt. However little you earn, it is always horribly easy to borrow, for there are always people unscrupulous enough to lend to you at the cost of your sanity. Some of the poorest people “own” mobile phones and satellite dishes whose value is dwarfed by the debt incurred to obtain them.

The Retail Price Index, based on a regularly updated shopping list of items, only shows what we like to buy, not what we need to buy. This month, children’s sandals and car seats dropped off the list while iPods and champagne were added. It only means that more people buy iPods than have babies; it does not mean that car seats are any less essential for saving children’s lives, or that children no longer need sandals. And if sandals suddenly become expensive, the RPI won’t notice.

There is an argument that poverty essentially consists of being unable to satisfy the pressures of your peer group. Thus, if a child is bullied and spat on for not wearing £85 trainers, and as a consequence his mum sells her happiness to a loan shark in order to buy the desired trainers, the family is clearly poor. It is pointed out that very poor single parents prefer to keep children at home, shoeless, until the cash for shoes can be scraped together.

What is wrong with this analysis is that second hand shoes are easily obtained, but the pride it takes to wear them with dignity harder to come by. What is also wrong with it is that the social stigma of debt, once reinforced by pride and piety, has gone for ever; what is also wrong with this analysis is that if the child’s school exercised its powers properly, the school bullies would have no idea whether the child even possessed anything other than the school’s “regulation” trainers.

On the other hand, a teenager without a PC and broadband is at a real disadvantage at school nowadays. So when an impoverished single mother gets into debt to buy a home computer, is she not as prudent as the middle class parents who take out a second mortgage to send a child to a prestigious school?

I am not saying that anybody defines poverty as finding it hard to pay for a computer…or for private education. I am saying, however, that it is misleading to define poverty by the lack of what you fancy you should be able to afford, rather than by what you actually need to help yourself towards independence and dignity.

Thus, the mobile phone is a luxury for me, as I have a home with a landline. But in the refugee camps of North Africa, where thousands languish in the hope of slipping into Spain one day, the mobile phone is a lifeline; it is more important than a pair of shoes or a loaf of bread, because it is the only channel by which a man may learn that he has a chance of being smuggled out that night.

Debt, susceptibility to peer pressure – these are different ways of defining poverty. One American bankruptcy expert claims that two-income families, despite being richer on paper than families with a stay-at-home mum, are among the most financially vulnerable of all because they have no “slack”. Asset-rich, time-poor, but stretched to the limit – there is nobody left in the family to send out to work.

“Man cannot live by bread alone”. It’s a two-edged dictum. It strikes most sharply at the rich who think the poor should be satisfied with bread and satellite dishes, and need not learn to aspire to dignity and spiritual enlightenment. But it also strikes at the nearly-rich who believe that happiness is just another credit card loan away.

Friday, March 03, 2006

The Teens of Ave Maria

Catholic Herald 3 March 2006

What will life be like for families who move to Ave Maria, the proposed Catholic city which the pizza millionaire Tom Monaghan is building on Florida farmland? Centred round a new university, Ave Maria could potentially provide that blissful sense of freedom to express faith blended with intellectual curiosity which you get at a good family retreat. Heady but supportive, principled but not hidebound. That would be the ideal.

Predictably, Monaghan’s proposal to exclude contraceptives and abortion from his town has already been attacked by local busybodies as an assault on human rights. How dreadful, they say, for women who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ave Maria and suddenly requiring an abortion. They will have to suffer the profound human rights indignity of getting the car out and driving all the way to Miami, a town far more in tune with human rights, apparently, being plentifully stocked with lethal drugs, guns and abortions.

Yes, it seems the ability to obtain a lunchtime abortion and a snort of coke within a half-hour drive of one’s home is a human right. This will come as interesting news to inhabitants of rural English villages, who can no longer post a parcel or buy a bag of frozen peas, let alone obtain an abortion, without having either to wait for the once-a-day bus, or drive themselves into the nearest market town and negotiate the change-hungry pay-and-display parking ticket machines. It will also come as interesting news to the millions of Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, who live an inconvenient distance from their nearest place of worship, since freedom to worship is surely still a basic human right.

But, back to Ave Maria and its sun-kissed streets. Will it work? Americans make a lot of fuss about separation of church and state, but church and town planning have a long history of collaboration. Previous generations of immigrants regarded the continent as a vast blank sheet on which to design perfect communities. There are many examples in the USA of more or less thriving communities formed around a religious ideal: not all of them have ended up, like the Shakers, as a “reference” for fitted kitchen designers.

Perhaps the best known are the Amish, Mennonite and other communities known under the delightful umbrella title of “the plain people”. There are up to 18,000 of them living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, alone. Everyone loves them because they drive horses and buggies, their menfolk have amazing beards and they are generally picturesque. Then there is Salt Lake City, of course, the Mormon settlement. Unless you are an Osmond fan, the Mormons are not picturesque, therefore less popular.

Hmm…maybe if Ave Maria can be made picturesque…. any chance of flying Tom Monaghan over to Wales, to have a look at Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s ersatz Italian fishing village, Portmeirion? If Ave Maria were to resemble this delicious flight of old European Catholic cultural fancy, it would surely become beloved of its visitors – and, more importantly, an enchanting place to raise children.

However I fear Ave Maria will look like every other American town, with long boring avenues of suburban homes too far from the shops for walking. For the president of its new university, Nicholas J. Healy, in criticising the religious flabbiness of the West’s response to the angry new face of Islam, has particularly harsh words for us old decadents here in Europe, sitting stunned with disbelief at demands for Bradford to become a monoculture ruled by Sharia law.

But I wonder - how will Dr Healy avoid his town being simply another monoculture? With no secular yoke against which to chafe, will it not become an empty shell – a Little World of Don Camillo, but with no communist mayor? Is it not the very dissidence of the American Catholic Church which has drawn live wires such as Tom Monaghan into its fold?

And, raised in Ave Maria, what will the teenagers have to rebel against? Teenagers raised in a ramshackle European-style city, will, with guidance, develop a clear view of Christ’s truth, because they can see its opposite. Raised only among the godly, they will strain at the leash.

Will there be, ten years down the road, a furiously frowning adolescent stumping about Ave Maria’s sunny streets proclaiming crossly that he is “the only Protestant in the village”?