When the poor behave badly, should they be excused?

“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” – Novelist and Nobel Laureate, Anatole France (1844 – 1924)

Have you ever wandered through the parking lot of a gambling casino? There are some fancy cars, but mostly they’re beaten-up old cars. They’re the cars of the working poor – most of whom are casino regulars, despite the research showing that regular gambling causes a significant drop in family income.

In South Africa, the working poor are still almost all black. We recently had the opportunity to see and hear the Celtic Women perform at the Grand West Casino.  We all queued to go through security – black and white – but once we were through, I noted that the streams of people separated by race.  With a few exceptions, the white mass of people veered left, to the auditorium where the Celtic Women performed for us at R200 a pop, while the predominantly coloured queue veered right straight into the Casino.

Which got me thinking:  How much of the poor’s problem is their own fault?  Now before you gasp let me just unpack the issue a bit.

The conservative viewpoint is that the individual is responsible for his or her own behaviour. Everyone has choice, it argues, and it’s up to each person to decide what do to with their lives.   The progressive viewpoint is that, while you have a choice, these are often dictated by society and the opportunities it provides to you.  We point to the fact that child deaths, sickness, and poor education are concentrated among the poorest.

At DGMT we recognise the injustices of wealth inequality that oppress people and limit their options.  Much of our focus is on asserting the rights and dignity of the oppressed. We also recognise the incredible resilience and social solidarity of the poor, described so well in Dominique Lapierre’s story of the City of Joy in Calcutta.

But there is another side that we perhaps don’t talk about enough – perhaps because we don’t know how to handle that knowledge. Among the poor – and particularly the urbanising poor – rates of domestic abuse, crime, alcohol abuse, sexual risk-taking and violence are far higher than among wealthier populations.  These differences were described by Lynch, Kaplan and Salonen in a 1997 article published in Social Science and Medicine, entitled “Why do poor people behave poorly?”. You may argue that the rich have their own boutique sins that have even bigger impact on society – white collar crime, unfair labour practices, and unjust economic systems.

But if we are honest, that’s a pretty unsatisfying answer, because we know that the poor are not all the salt of the earth.  Khayelitsha and Manenberg are not really cities of joy.  It’s not just a few thugs, but a culture of risk taking and risk tolerance that pervades marginalised societies.  In an article in the Cape Times last year, Professor Mark Tomlinson described the “callous – unemotionality” involved in pulling a truck driver out of his vehicle and setting him alight.  He describes the cycle of violence when that offender goes home in the evening to his child.  What sort of a father could he be? What sort of children is he raising?  What sort of children are we raising when they stand with their parents watching petty criminals in Khayelitsha being necklaced?

You could take the line that survival pressures force the poor to steal for food and other basic needs. That’s true, but it’s not the whole answer either, is it?  The fact that the Nyanga police precinct has the highest number of murders in the country isn’t because the people there need food more than in Thohoyandou. Nor do you have to rape to survive.

We’re so concerned about not being patronising that we’ve created an aura of preciousness about the poor.  In his book Respect in an Age of Inequality, Richard Sennett concludes that we will never fully overcome inequality, and that for reasons that we don’t necessarily understand, some people will remain poor.  That’s not a new insight, but Sennett argues that true respect lies not in understanding what makes the persistently poor tick, but in accepting their autonomy.  The granting of autonomy, he says, dignifies the weak.  For a while I bought his argument, but I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with it for two reasons.  The first, in my experience, is that if we have high expectations of the poor and weak, we dignify them.  They have dignity not because we recognise their autonomy, but because we expect a lot of them.  I was with a group of young people this week and felt incredibly humbled when one of them stood up and thanked me for believing in them more than they did themselves.  In my experience, the poor and marginalised don’t want to be left to be left to their own devices – they want to be included; they want opportunity even if they don’t necessarily know what to do with it when they get it.  We must develop a culture of aspiration among everyone – not aspiration in the way it has come to be understood in South Africa as a chasing after bling, but a culture in which every person aspires to reach his or her full potential.

Last week I was in a small town in the middle of the Northern Cape – 200 kilometres from Kimberley and seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  I was meeting with a group of young people who genuinely want to give back to their community and are trying to do so.  But as I talked with them, it was clear that they would run out of steam unless they themselves had pathways to personal development.  And so I started to ask them about themselves; what school grades they had completed; what they wanted to do and what they had done to try and fulfil their ambitions.  Almost all of them had completed matric – some with good grades, but had immediately struck obstacles.  They wanted to apply for college or university, but needed R200 to apply – or they wanted to rewrite a subject to better their grades, but needed R75 to do so.  Representing DGMT, I was in a privileged position to unblock those obstacles – to say that we would cover the costs of applications and seek to find the necessary bursaries to study further.  I told them so, but instead of relief and enthusiasm, there was a sense of shock.  They had wanted to do something with their lives, but had come to the point that they didn’t actually believe it would be possible. They didn’t know how to respond to opportunity, even though it was knocking loudly on their door.

The second reason why I no longer buy Sennett’s proposition is that it presupposes that we have complete control over the choices we make – and that is not true. In the 1980’s, anthropologist Mary Douglas and professor of public policy Aaron Wildavsky first proposed the cultural theory of risk.  They argued that the type of society we live in, the circumstances we find ourselves in, determine our willingness to take risks.  They concluded that there are two main factors that shape our risk tolerance – the first is the degree to which we feel we have choices and the second is the extent to which we feel we belong.  In egalitarian societies such as Sweden, for example, people feel that they have choice and are included – and thus avoid risk-taking.  In polarised societies such as South Africa, people feel excluded and often feel that they have little choice – and this context nurtures a sense of fatalism which gives rise to risk-taking.  Behavioural economists Lowenstein and Prelec enhanced our understanding even more by showing that while we place high value on our long-term health and well-being, in the short-term we’re more prepared to put them at risk.  And the less we have to live for now, the more we discount the value of health and well-being.

One final piece of research that I want to share with you comes from social psychologists Paul Slovic and Elke Weber who have shown that, when we are faced with risks, we take the risk we think is worth taking – relative to the other risks.  This is not necessarily a conscious decision, but is shaped by the factors I’ve already mentioned – your sense of belonging, choice and the degree to which you discount the future value of your health and well-being.  Let me give a practical example:  A young woman living in Nyanga may well look to an older man for protection on the streets so that she is not raped, in return for unprotected sex.  She’s made the ‘choice’ that short-term protection is worth more than longer-term security against HIV/AIDS.

I’m not saying that individuals have no say over the choices they make.  On the contrary:  We all can make choices. But it’s easier for a richer person to make safer decisions than it is for a poorer person, because they face fewer trade-offs.

If we really believe in those who lack a spirit of aspiration and build their sense of real and imminent possibility, they too will be able to be contribute to a greater society.  If we make the excluded feel included and give them a sense of choice and agency, they too will become change agents. If we expect more of the poor, if we create a sense of opportunity, we are helping to make the world a better place.

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