What does poverty look like? What does the media tell us poverty looks like? Is it a drug addict swearing in the street, a single mother going hungry just to feed her child, a homeless boy in an ambiguous country in Africa? Maybe it is all these things and more.
When receiving news and information, people like to keep things simple. They like to have a go-to image in their mind. People like to imagine that complex situations are simple and linear and always look the same. This is true for many issues, and particularly true for the public perception of poverty.
Overall I think we like to imagine a caricature of poverty, because no matter what poor people look like in your head they probably don’t look like you. We like maintaining this simple image because it allows us to distance ourselves from the situation. We can say “My area’s not poor”, “No one I know is like that”, “I’m not poor, even though I can’t afford the rent and need to get a second job”. The reality is that anyone can be poor, and anyone can become poor.
The public perception of the poor is harmful in several ways.
First of all, it allows people who have no experience of poverty to dismiss poor people as a group of people they will never have to associate with. It makes poverty into a problem of the other. This is often even true of portrayals that are supposedly designed to help. A recent example of this is the SBS documentary ‘Struggle Street’, which aimed to give a realistic portrayal of poverty.
Set in Sydney’s Mt Druitt area, the series followed several abjectly poor families, documenting struggles with mental illness, drug abuse and legal disputes. The series was heavily criticised for being ‘poverty porn’, and instead of bring something new to the conversation it made entertainment out of the struggle of disadvantaged people. However others argued that the series is only ‘poverty porn’ if that’s what you choose to get out of it, a guardian article writing,
“It has been dismissed as poverty porn, but that’s up to us, really. It’s only poverty porn if we have a look, kind of enjoy being sad and shocked, and then turn away to other things.”
Also coming under the banner of ‘poverty porn’ is the countless adverts and documentaries we see about poverty in other countries, particularly ambiguous areas of Africa. These images are designed to make us feel bad, usually just enough to donate some money. We have then done our good deed of the day and can continue to ignore poverty once again.
Having such a narrow view of poverty also allows us to dictate what counts as real poverty. In 2012, single parent Jack Monroe posted to her blog outlining the struggle of having to go hungry just to feed their son. The blog post goes into detail about the lengths Monroe has to go to in order to feed their son and pay rent. Immediately following the popularity of her post, Monroe was criticised for many different aspects of their post. The overwhelming theme of the criticism seemed to be the idea that Monroe themself was the reason for their situation. They had a phone, and left a well paying job, but most of all they didn’t fit into the idea that many people had of what it was to be truly poor.
Poverty, like many other, is just another issue we love to ignore. If you think you’re poor, you’re probably not really poor, and if you are poor, it’s probably your own fault anyway. Poverty isn’t an issue that can be put into a box. It not one thing. It is a complex issue that affect many different people in many different ways. Just because poverty complicated doesn’t mean it should be ignored.