It would seem strange to people of the preceding epochs that poverty still exists in the twenty-first century. The logic of development should have led to the elimination of such social evils as poverty, starvation, and infectious diseases by now. The swift progress of sciences during the last two centuries made many people optimistic about the prospects of mankind. The idealists of the nineteenth century believed that their descendants would live in a society of universal prosperity. However, it hasn’t happened yet. Poverty still exists though it may manifest itself differently than earlier – it takes other forms and moves to other places; but its main characteristic – starvation – and its main consequence – deaths of thousands of people – are the same. It is an axiom that to fight any phenomenon one needs to find causes of it and fight them first. So, we need to understand what poverty is and what its causes are in order to eliminate this evil. Various attempts have been made by scientists, journalists, and activists of different kinds to discover the nature of the phenomenon. George Orwell’s novel Down and Out in Paris and London is an example of a writer’s insight into the problem. It is important not only because it discusses causes and characteristic features of poverty but mainly because it gives a human face to the catastrophe. The author shares his personal invaluable experience with the readers, and his story allows a look at poverty under a different angle.
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It would be logical to start with the definition of poverty. Everybody speaks about it but those who have never experienced it can never know for sure what it really means. As Orwell put it, “You have thought so much about poverty — it is the thing you have feared all your life, the thing you knew would happen to you sooner or later; and it is all so utterly and prosaically different” (17). Different international and domestic institutions have elaborated the ways of measuring poverty, like calculating GDP, consumption levels, etc. However, it tells nothing to an average man. It is merely a dry statistics. What speaks louder than the figures is personal experience. George Orwell described his own experience and gave us the vivid picture of poverty. He did not define it clearly but he described it perfectly by discussing its characteristics, and one can make a conclusion that poverty is hunger, enforced idleness, constant discomfort, and absence of any future. It was so eighty years ago, and it is in general terms so today. If one checks out some Internet resources on poverty, he or she will see the same. Hunger is the main characteristic and consequence of poverty. Especially impressing – or, rather, depressing – is the picture on the site Poverty.com: it literary gives a human face to the catastrophe. The counter here counts the number of deaths from starvation, and every time somebody dies, a picture shows up. It happens every three seconds in average. Of course, pictures and names are not real but the figures are, and together they give a painful impression. It is advisable that policy-makers look at this picture for a few minutes whenever they are to discuss aid programs. However, let us return to the definition of poverty. The major lesson we learn from Orwell’s work and from the site is that poverty is suffering. No figures can communicate it since there are no ways of measuring suffering. Poverty is starvation. Poverty is death. Poverty is a humiliating condition that deprives a man of his human face. As Orwell writes about his friend Paddy, “It was malnutrition and not any native vice that had destroyed his manhood” (153). Orwell teaches us not to think of paupers as of inferior beings. They are what they are not because they want no changes but because they have no other choice.
Asking himself a question why “this life goes on”, Orwell refutes the assumption that it is idleness that makes people poor; “Beggars do not work, it is said; but, then, what is work?”, he says (173). Discussing the life and social meaning of a dishwasher, he rightfully states that “an idle man cannot be a plongeur” (116). Orwell believes this work to be basically useless and states that it is “fear of the mob” that induces people to maintain the status quo: upper classes feel safer if “the mob” is constantly occupied with work and has no leisure to think of its conditions and demand improvements:
We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. (…) So, dear brothers, since evidently you must sweat to pay for our trips to Italy, sweat and be damned to you. (Orwell 119)
It is obvious then that upper classes, who make laws, have legitimated the state of affairs. Orwell blames laws that do not give an opportunity to break the circle of poverty: “A tramp tramps, not because he likes it, but for the same reason as a car keeps to the left; because there happens to be a law compelling him to do so” (201). There was a law that banned staying in one casual ward more than once a month, and tramps had to move constantly due to this absurd prescription. Of course, Orwell could not leave it unnoticed. He proved with this that tramps vagabonded not because of their wanderer’s inclinations but because of the silly law. Orwell also underlined that it would be much easier to enforce a law prescribing to equip lodging-houses with comfortable beds than to enforce “restrictions upon gambling” (211).
One of the most significant causes of poverty can also be counted as its consequence due to its dual nature. It is the fact that poverty is indeed an endless circle one may hardly ever break, “the fact that it annihilates the future”, as Orwell put it (20). Describing the life of a Paris plongeur, he questioned his chances of getting a better life: “Except by a lucky chance, he has no escape from this life, save into prison” (116). Absolutely independently of Orwell, the site Poverty.com describes the same characteristic of poverty:
They [poor people] lack the money to buy enough food to nourish themselves. Being constantly malnourished, they become weaker and often sick. This makes them increasingly less able to work, which then makes them even poorer and hungrier. This downward spiral often continues until death for them and their families. (Hunger and World Poverty)
Indeed, it makes the situation of poor people even worse, if it can be worse. It leaves no hope to them, and they go in the circle over and over again.
In the quote above, the circle starts with hunger, and it is indeed the most obvious and the most common consequence of poverty. Listing “three especial evils” that penetrate the life of the poor, Orwell names hunger first, and described its effect as enervating: “Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else. (…) Complete inertia is my chief memory of hunger” (38). It is not surprising that a person with an empty stomach has no energy to act.
In his account of troubles that face the poor, Orwell mentions lack of contact with women. It may seem strange and not so important at first sight, but it has a great impact on the person’s mental condition. Due to some reason, female tramps are a rare phenomenon, and women of a higher rank would not allow any contact between them and the tramps. According to Orwell, enforced celibacy makes a tramp feel “himself degraded to the rank of a cripple or a lunatic”, and the results are “homosexuality, for instance, and occasional rape cases” (204).
The other “great evil of a tramp's life” that Orwell mentions several times in his book is “enforced idleness” (204). A tramp has nothing to do and basically nothing to think about – he merely rambles from one spike to another in search of food and shelter, and when he gets it, he has absolutely nothing to do. Orwell called idleness “one of the worst evils of poverty” and rightfully noted that “an educated man can put up with enforced idleness” (180). If an educated man has nothing to do, he may entertain himself with millions of thoughts and analytical conclusions. This pleasure is inaccessible to uneducated people, and tramps have no ways of acquiring education – thus, no way of escaping idleness.
All these combined with numerous everyday troubles of lesser significance create an enormous humiliating effect on a person. Even clothes can make people feel abject: “Dressed in a tramp's clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded”, as Orwell describes his impressions of wearing tramp’s rags (129). Boris, the author’s Russian friend in Paris, made an interesting observation of what effect a hungry person makes on others: “It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you” (Orwell 51). However, for some it didn’t matter. Bozo, London pavement artist, “refused either to have any compunction about it [being a beggar] or to let it trouble him”, justly believing that it was not his fault (Orwell 166). However, this was a rare type of a beggar, and self-respect is not generally among the virtues of poor people.
As a direct consequence of lack of self-respect and extremely obscure prospects of future with no firm hope, alcohol consumption appears. Presenting description of his neighborhood in Paris, Orwell says: “For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living” (96). It is difficult to blame them for their passion to strong waters as they had too little pleasures in their lives and drinking was one of the few things they could afford.
Thus, the consequences and characteristics of poverty are hunger, enforced celibacy and idleness, humiliation, and drinking. There are a lot of minor inconveniences but the core of the problem is more or less fully described by the ones presented. Orwell does not only describe the evils but offers a solution. According to him, in order to “turn the tramp from a bored, half alive vagrant into a self-respecting human being” it is simply needed to give him work: “For the question is, what to do with men who are underfed and idle; and the answer — to make them grow their own food — imposes itself automatically” (206-207). One might also add that the work should be decently paid since in many parts of the world now poor people do have a work – and a hard work, in many cases – but it does not give them enough money to feed their families.
Therefore, Orwell presented his subjective account of poverty as it was at that time, and his evidence is still important to us. If poverty is still not eliminated, then the mankind has not yet learnt the lesson that Orwell gave us warning that this world “awaits you if you are ever penniless” (213). He said that he had not seen “more than the fringe of poverty” (213) but even the description of this “fringe” is a quite shocking picture that gives rather full characteristic of poverty, its causes and consequences, and even provides possible solutions, which was not a task of a writer. Thus, having enumerated the characteristics of poverty described by Orwell, we can return to the question of poverty definition. Now it can be said that poverty is a social phenomenon that deprives a person of what constitutes a normal human life including basic necessities: food, clothes, shelter, health, the possibility to marry and have a family, the possibility of personal development through education. It is an endless circle of misfortunes with all thoughts devoted to finding food and shelter. This is the truth about poverty that George Orwell told us with his novel. It is amazing how it is similar to what The World Bank tells us about poverty today:
Poverty is hunger. Poverty is lack of shelter. Poverty is being sick and not being able to see a doctor. Poverty is not having access to school and not knowing how to read. Poverty is not having a job, is fear for the future, living one day at a time. Poverty is losing a child to illness brought about by unclean water. Poverty is powerlessness, lack of representation and freedom. (What is poverty?)
It is very sad that almost nothing has changed during the eighty years that have passed after Orwell wrote his story.
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