Poverty is a complex word. It has both negative and positive meanings. The word is associated with a lack and deprivation, but with bliss and a personal aspiration. The poor are to be pitied, they are guilty of their condition, or they are saints, who have understood the secret of a happy life. The poor are either those to be helped, or an example to be imitated.
The Iranian economist Majid Rahnema, in her book Quando la povertà diventa miseria [When Poverty Becomes Misery], identifies five forms of poverty:
“That chosen by my mother and my Sufi grandfather, like the great poor of Persian mysticism; that of certain poor people in the neighborhood where I spent the first twelve years of my life; that of women and men in a modernizing world, with insufficient income to keep up with the needs created by society; that linked to the unbearable deprivation suffered by a multitude of human beings reduced to humiliating forms of misery; that, lastly, represented by the moral misery of the landowning classes and of certain social circles that I came across in the course of my professional career” (2005, Einaudi).
Five forms of poverty, but not all of them are curses; some are even paths to happiness. There is indeed poverty, and “poverty”. The original title of the Iranian economist’s book is much more eloquent than its Italian translation: Quand la misère chasse la pauvreté, that is, When Misery Drives Out Poverty. Under certain circumstances, in fact, misery is so severe as to make it impossible to experience poverty understood as a freely chosen virtue. If I do not have the money to feed my children, or to care for them, it is impossible to choose a sober and generous life. As Gandhi once said, “To a man with an empty stomach, food is god”. Moreover, when man finds himself in such a condition, he quite easily becomes a slave to those who promise him that food. The economist Alfred Marshall put it this way in 1890, “It is true that even a poor man can achieve in religion, family affection and friendship the highest happiness. However, the conditions which characterize extreme poverty tend to kill this happiness”. We could therefore say that poverty is a blessing and misery a curse. Misery must therefore be fought; poverty can become an ideal of life, leading to happiness. This last connection is difficult to understand; why can voluntarily depriving ourselves of goods and riches make us happy? “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). The poor experience the kingdom of heaven already on this earth: “A kingdom where providence is known, which only the poor experience: providence is for Lucia, not for don Rodrigo. The most beautiful feasts are the feasts of the poor: perhaps there are no more joyful things on earth than weddings and births celebrated by the poor in the midst of the poor” (Luigino Bruni, “Avvenire” 2015).
Women and the poor. Marginalised on two fronts
Unfortunately, even when we talk about misery and being forced into a life of poverty, we have to acknowledge that there are differences between men and women. After all, not even misery levels the genders. I recently met a woman who had worked as a caregiver for 13 years without any financial contributions being made on her behalf. Today, she is out of work, without a pension, desperate for an opportunity, and therefore ready to remain invisible in order to have something to eat. This opens up the issue of women's inferior financial independence, which exposes them to greater fragility in the face of unfortunate events. The majority of women do not have a bank account, if married they do not have ownership of accounts, and, having less practical experience, they are less competent in these areas. Moreover, unfortunately, there is a well-documented correlation between financial autonomy and domestic violence: the women most prone to domestic violence are those who do not have the freedom and autonomy to get away from violent husbands. Violence is now a commonly recognized phenomenon, but there are many other areas where women’s plight is unknown or recognised, especially when they risk impoverishment and exclusion.
Sometimes, in fact, the data we collect distorts reality, often because they are designed by men and consider men as the norm. This is Caroline Criado Perez’s thesis, who in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (Chatto & Windus, London, 2019) cites many examples of how statistics fail to see the specifics and needs of women, and thus give a distorted picture of reality. Then, if policies are subsequently based on this data, it goes without saying that women therefore have a more difficult life. According to the author, women are invisible in everyday life; for example, think of domestic work (associated with women) which is seen as a normal phenomenon; in the design of cities and how many urban plans take into account those who normally do the shopping? In the workplace, that there is a wage gap between men and women for performing identical tasks is widely recognised; in technology, just to cite one example, Google’s dictation software deciphers male speech with a 70 per cent higher probability than female speech. In the medical field, taking the male body as a paradigm and object of study still leads to more misdiagnoses for women, and limits research on typically female pathologies.
If we reminded ourselves more often that human beings are male and female, interventions against poverty would also be more effective.
Poverty is only a choice when one has overcome misery
If we return to the difference between poverty and misery, it is important to recognise a link between these two conditions for it is only those who freely choose to be poor, only those who renounce possessions and experience poverty can help the poor to rise again. On the other hand, not all that comes from the top down, those who see the condition of deprivation only as a problem to be solved will never have the right instruments to effectively combat misery. The following names, those of Luisa de Marillac; of Francis de Sales; Jeanne de Chantal; and, then John Baptist Scalabrini (made a saint on 9 October by Pope Francis); Joseph Benedict Cottolengo; John Calabria; Frances Cabrini; John Bosco; and, Mother Teresa, chose the path of poverty, and had eyes to see in the poor, in the disgraced, the derelict, the street children, the immigrants, the sick, even the deformed, something great and beautiful for which it was worth spending their lives -and those of the hundreds of thousands of people who followed them-, attracted and inspired by their example. In the wake of these forerunners and prophets, and given the fact that they have generally been relegated to the background, women figures stand out for their courage and ability to go against the tide. Unfortunately, the example and deeds of these women, many of them who have been founders of religious institutes and orders, are less well known than those of their male “colleagues” are. Even today, many women's religious institutes are on the frontier of what we could call the misery within misery of many women. These include human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women, literacy and financial education, especially in countries where women are not given access to ordinary educational pathways, maternity aid, where one can easily die when giving birth.
The work of consecrated women is not that of an NGO
How does the work of so many consecrated women on behalf of other women differ from that of so many international agencies? First, it distinguishes itself in its purpose, namely to bring to life the words of Jesus, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). To bring God’s tenderness for every creature, especially for the marginalised and excluded. Second, there is a how, which is both an already and a not yet. A Christian proposal so that no one is excluded, that of the communion of goods. In the first Christian Community, we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need” [Acts 4:34-35]. Mass in common was free and spontaneous, and goods were distributed according to need. The consequence of the communal mass was that in the Community “there were no needy”. In a Community, when each gives joyfully and shares everything, there are no needy. A choice of individual sobriety shared among many generates inclusive communities. The Apostle Paul, in every small church he founded, organized collections, and in his letters, he explains how to carry them out. From St Paul we learn that goods are shared, but also one's own work, so that all may have something to give, and that Providence is a fundamental actor in sharing: “Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver…He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources[b] and increase the harvest of your righteousness” [2 Cor 9:7,10].
Providence and a hundredfold do not always manifest themselves on the same level as the gifts and goods that are shared with the community. A deprivation of material goods, for example, can correspond to an unexpected fruitfulness of work, and vice versa. A passage from the Epistle to the Romans is significant in this regard, stating “For Macedo′nia and Acha′ia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem; 27 they were pleased to do it, and indeed they are in debt to them, for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings” (see Rom 15:20-27). A communion of spiritual and material goods, therefore.
The path to the communion of goods depends on the commitment of all and the contribution of each one. It is no coincidence that the first disagreement in the first Christian community is the episode of Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5:1-11]. They, while sharing goods, also try to keep something for themselves, and lie to Peter. The first problem of corruption of the community does not concern doctrine or faith, but the sharing of goods. Is it perhaps because of this episode, and the many episodes in which self-interest prevails over the common good, that there is little talk today of the communion of goods as an ideal and a way of life that would solve the problem of the rejected at its root? Yet so many religious institutes, so many Christian communities and movements, without making too much noise about it, are living this ideal and are shoots, sketches of how the world could be if we thought of it through the eyes of the discarded and all understood the bliss of poverty.
By ALESSANDRA SMERILLI
Daughter of Mary Help of Christians, economist, secretary of the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development