Making poverty more pleasant

I have family members in four different countries, and they are all a mess. Not the family members, the countries. Or three of them. I don’t pay very much attention to Australia. One of my nieces is there on a student visa that runs out soon. She’s nearly finished a PhD in some electrical engineering thing and will be coming home to Canada before too long.

It’s the other three countries I worry about. Canada, the United States, and not-so-Great-these-days Britain. They are all run by people who pretend to work for the citizens but really do the opposite. Whatever they do to make things better always makes life worse. There’s a good article about them on The Guardian web site.

It’s an excerpt from a book by Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World . The title gives a good clue to what it’s all about. It’s a good companion piece to another Guardian essay, The Trouble With Charitable Billionaires by Carl Rhodes and Peter Bloom, that appeared last May.

The article focuses on politicians like Donald Trump and Theresa May, and elite “changemakers” like Richard Branson, Bill Clinton and others, but he got me thinking of our local mayor and his emergency task force to deal with the crisis of poverty and homelessness.

To make a long story short, after a couple of meetings he decided there’s nothing he can do about it so he’ll pass the matter along to the social service agencies and other organizations that can. If they can get the funding, which they probably won’t.

There is, Giridharadas writes, a “darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that doing so not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are.”

What is this “elite”? Giridharadas says it is people with “concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo. It consists of enlightened businesspeople and their collaborators in the worlds of charity, academia, media, government and thinktanks.”

The people driving this sort of social change are people who have, themselves, benefited enormously from it. They convince the rest of us that they deserve our gratitude because they are “giving back” a portion of their wealth. They define the sort of social change they will bring, and design the vehicles that will bring it. One of the consequences is that their change will not alter the basic social forces that brought them great wealth. They reduce, sometimes even eliminate, the role of government as the agent of social change.

According to an article Adam Donaldson wrote on Guelph Politico, our mayor told the second and final meeting of his emergency task force that he has “heard the urgency.”

“We have to figure out,” he said, “who’s going to step up to the plate on some of these [initiatives] that can be implemented now.”

Surely I’m not the only person to see the staggering implications of Guthrie’s words. During the campaign he saw some people sleeping in the fields and declared homelessness an emergency. After the election he set up an emergency task force to act on it. After two meetings he announced that action on this urgent emergency would have to wait for the right people to step up to the plate. Or any people. Just not him.

When you drill down through the linked references in Giridharadas’ article you will uncover an article by Oscar Wilde in which he says, “They try to solve the problem of poverty (…..) by keeping the poor alive.” He could have been talking about task forces.

The intentions might be wonderful, but the deeds change nothing. They are designed to make poverty more pleasant. While the task forces develop their recommendations, governments initiate more and more austerity programs. The austerity never touches the politicians and corporate leaders who demand it.

The poor are advised to tighten their belts another notch or two until things get better.

As Wilde said, it’s like advising a starving person to eat less.


  1. ..reminiscient of Dicken’s Mrs Pardiggle of Bleak House..very good read..

  2. Eat the poor before they suffer. We all win.

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