Tackling poverty requires agency, not pity

August 12, 2022 10:21
Photo: RTHK

When speaking of poverty, we tend to focus on its debilitating and dehumanising nature. It hurts to be poor. It is expensive to be poor. It is de-dignifying to be forced to live under the stultifying conditions that comprise the caged homes in our city. It is fundamentally abhorrent that a large number of the poorest and underbelly in our city are stripped of opportunities to work – to agitate for social mobility. We are told that poverty is both a given, and a moral tragedy: and no more.

All of the above is true. It is indeed the case that poverty afflicts a large number of Hong Kong citizens – nearly one in five, prior to government policy intervention, had lived in poverty in 2020. Yet the issue with such narratives, as I have come to realise through a combination of my reporting, writing, advocacy, and volunteering at sites of abject destitution in our city, is that we end up leaving out a vital ingredient to real progress: agency. More specifically, we do not afford or accord to the poor sufficient agency – in our understandings, the poor are to be helped, to be liberated, to be taught how to become ‘better’ individuals, or to climb the proverbial ladder. Yet few voices, if at all, reflect upon how such a sympathy-laden gaze could in fact be counterproductive. We need to acknowledge the agency needs of the poor, in order to equip them with the toolkits to overcome the material needs that strangulate them in the status quo.

A friend of mine works in Sham Shui Po as a frontline social/elderly care worker. He comes from rather modest origins – a background circumstance that in turn spurred his interest in volunteering and serving the poor. Over a pint he relayed his frustrations: he found that on the contrary to his prior expectations, many residing in caged homes are struggling not because of the dearth of attention – but because they are inundated with all kinds of aid, support-in-kind, and donations, which have in turn inculcated in them the sentiment that, ‘The help we receive is sufficient – we need not put in the shift’. Learned helplessness and inculcated dependence are thus the problems – as opposed to under-funding and -provision of welfare and goods. In other words, the welfarist, redistributionist regime that many had pressed for – seems to not only be constricted in its efficacy, but could in fact be counterproductive.

The undergirding logic to his observations and remarks is simple – and has been extensively discussed by economists including Moyo, Duflo, and Easterly. The unidirectional supply of goods and services – as the end products of welfare regimes – often breeds a sense of unconditional reliance upon such provisions. Individuals neither see themselves as needing to toil away in order to lift themselves out of poverty (especially given the short- to medium-term costs of up-skilling and applying for jobs), nor, indeed, as agents capable of social mobility through self-driven action. The net outcome is thus stagnation – individuals stagnate for they feel neither the imperative nor the capacity to step out of their comfort zones. In the States, this looks like the rise in dependants amongst white working-class men left redundant under mechanisation and globalisation; in the UK, this looks like the thousands, if not millions shut out of the job and housing markets, in part due to their own subconscious volitions – after all, why work when there exists a sufficiently good safety net that holds irrespective of their choices and behaviours?

Perhaps the answer then, as my friend advocated, was for us to press for reductions to unconditional welfare, and an enhanced conditionalisation of welfare – e.g. only grant welfare to individuals who have demonstrated resolve and intention to work, and/or to cultivate employable skills. This is indeed the modus operandi that has been adopted in polities where the welfare system is less strangulated by the double whammy of bureaucratism and partial (incomplete) privatisation, cf. Hong Kong.

In rejoinder to his observation, I noted that the concerns over welfare (over-)dependence – whilst plausible – must be caveated by the further facts that a) not everyone who is in a position of need is capable of helping themselves, and b) not everyone who receives welfare is thus deterred from working. Indeed, to ask those who cannot fend or work for themselves, whether it be due to physical injury or mental defects, to do so with no additional aid, would be downright absurd and implausible. We cannot make welfare conditional for those who need welfare to access a minimal, barely sufficient quality of life.

Nor, indeed, should we take the ‘disincentivisation’ effects of welfare as a necessary given and empirical fact. After all, it is equally plausible that welfare equips individuals with the buffer time and surplus energy that they need, in order to hone and cultivate skills that would allow them to be employable in the future. Those who live constantly on the cusp of bankruptcy and abject poverty, cannot possibly plan for the future.

What is therefore needed, is the recentering of anti-poverty efforts around agency. Whether it be government initiatives or private philanthropic efforts, the focus must be on improving the agency of the poor – in empowering them to act, in encouraging them to try, and in equipping them with the opportunities and skills to succeed when intending to do so. Providing a minimal safety net remains a necessity, but is by no means sufficient. We need education, vocational training, partially but not wholly conditionalised aid, and structural transformations that encourage upward mobility.

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Assistant Professor, HKU