If you’ve read any Dickens, you’ll know how poverty and vice were inherently linked in the Victorian psyche. In Britain, poor people were marginalised and even criminalised by the Poor Laws of 1834. Victorians believed in the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’; that it must be a defect in an individual’s personality that resulted in poverty, such as an unwillingness to work hard or an inherent dishonesty or mendacity.
Depending on your background and where you come from, you may or may not be surprised to discover that many of these attitudes and assumptions about poverty persist today. Those who see people in poverty as “others” are more likely to blame their condition exclusively on lack of personal responsibility, ignoring other factors, like education, disability, discrimination and family structure. ‘Victorian’ attitudes that falsely connect poverty and vice (such as laziness or immorality) prevent progressive policy changes that would help alleviate poverty and benefit everyone in society, poor or otherwise.
In this section, you’ll find out about poverty myths, learn the social, political and economic reasons that trap people in poverty, and discover texts that perpetuate false poverty stories; and progressive texts that call for a change in the social narrative about this modern taboo.
- Poverty… It’s A Lack Of Cash (Tedtalk by Rutger Bregman)
- The Myth of the Culture of Poverty (article by Paul Gorski)
- American Attitudes About Poverty (PRB Report)
- Poverty Myths and Stereotypes (handout by Just Harvest)
- A-Town and B-Ville: A Semantic Parable (extract from Language in Thought and Action)
- Victorian Attitudes Towards Poverty… Today (article from the Young Fabians)
This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:
Class Activity: poverty myths
Test the strength of poverty myths for yourself by conducting a survey of students from your own or another class or year group. Present the four myths from Paul Gorski’s article (embedded above) and find ways to collect feedback about them. For example, you might ask participants to say whether they have ever thought each myth true in the past, or you might ask participants to score each myth out of 5 (1 = completely untrue; 5 = completely true). Discuss the results of your survey.
Areas of Exploration Guiding Conceptual Question
Every one of us is immersed in a particular time and culture. Wherever you might be reading this right now – from Paris to Peru to Pyongyang – you are surrounded by and influenced by culture or, as people travel, migrate and intermingle, a mix of cultures. This complexity of cultures influences the texts we create and, in turn, texts are an important way of understanding and gaining insight into other people and places. Reading through the following resource will help you explore the guiding question:
After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:
- Do you think that stereotypes of poverty persist in the society you live in today? What historical or cultural factors contribute to poverty stereotypes in your city or country? Do you think these stereotypes are widespread?
- How can societies go about tackling poverty? Is it possible to end poverty? How? What policies might be effective in helping raise people out of poverty? Are there any examples of places that are succeeding in the battle against poverty?
Choose a literary or non-literary text you know that deals with characters who are rich and/or poor. The text could be a film, novel, television show, play, poem, comic, advert, song, or any other relevant text. If this theme is relevant to one of the literary works on your course, such as Pygmalion or Border Town, you could choose this text. How does the text treat character(s) who are rich or poor? Do you think the text presents any of the stereotypes you have learned about in this unit? Or is the text progressive in light of the way it presents rich and poor characters?
Write a one-two page journal entry analysing and evaluating your chosen text. Alternatively, if your text is visual (for example, an advert, music video, film, and so on) create a powerpoint presentation using screenshots. Deliver your presentation to your classmates.
Paper 1 Text Type Focus: descriptive texts
At the end of your course you will be asked to analyze unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Below are examples of descriptive texts covering a range of text types including essay and blog. Use the examples of different descriptive passages here to familiarise yourself with the genre tropes of this kind of writing; add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the sample responses then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:
key features of description
- Diction: the aim of descriptive writing is to help you visualise what’s in the writer’s head, so vague language is not helpful. Descriptive writing employs concrete language in precise ways.
- Imagery: as writing which is drawn from direct experience, description always involves imagery. Humans perceive the world vividly using our visual sense – but don’t forget about other ways of perception: sensory images can also be auditory, tactile, kinaesthetic, and even olfactory (the sense of smell).
- Figurative Comparisons: similes, metaphors, and personifications are commonly found in descriptive writing.
- Modifiers: the function of adjectives and adverbs are to describe.
- Perspective: one of the most important features that can effect the structure, tone, and style of the piece. For example, a piece from an outsider perspective will contain very different thoughts and feelings to a piece written from an insider’s point of view.
Body of Work: I, Daniel Blake (dir. by Ken Loach)
“Find a big wall and project this film on to it so as many people as possible see it. It needs to be shown.”Jack Monroe, journalist and poverty campaigner
Daniel Blake is a skilled craftsman; he is honest, has integrity and feels compassion for others. Katie Morgan is a single mum who has been moved 300 miles to Newcastle because, allegedly, there is no housing in London, the capital of one of the world’s wealthiest countries and a city with thousands of houses standing empty.
After he suffers a serious heart attack, Daniel finds himself out of work and forced into a benefit and jobseekers system that has no room for empathy or the messy reality of life. The film tells the story of Daniel’s growing relationship with Katie – a story built from the painstaking testimonies of people who live such a life, not on the screen, but painfully and for real.
Released in 2016 to critical acclaim and box office success, I, Daniel Blake is one of Ken Loach’s most powerful and hard-hitting films. His ouevre stretches back five decades, including the groundbreaking film, Cathy Come HOme, which explores similar themes. I, Daniel Blake presents many Loach trademarks: hot-button social issues (food banks and benefits assessment); realistic performances; an unknown actor (standup comedian Dave Johns) in his first film role. Importantly, Loach’s film drives home the truth that poverty is a political choice rather than a result of fecklessness on the part of tens of thousands of people who co-inhabit with those more fortunate in society today. You can watch and study this film as a language and literature Body of Work.
Towards Assessment: Individual Oral
Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)
This movie would make an ideal choice to discuss in this assessed activity. Here are two suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.
- Field of Inquiry: Culture, Identity and Community
- Global Issue: Poverty
Loach’s film powerfully makes the point that the predicament of many people in poverty does not stem from personal lack of motivation or national lack of funds, but rather how those funds are dispersed and utilised, which is done in a horrible, inefficient, bureaucratic, and dehumanising fashion. The film also suggests that hopes and ambitions which don’t relate to money are not appreciated enough in a rampant capitalist society.
- Field of Inquiry: Culture, Identity and Community
- Global Issue: The crushing banality of bureaucracy
In a key scene in Loach’s film, Daniel visits the administrative centre in order to apply for benefits and allowances. Instead of help there, he encounters the crushing banality of a complicated, anachronistic and ineffective system that dehumanises him and robs him of any dignity.
possible literary pairings
- Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – given these works are separated by over one hundred years, it’s depressing how similar life is for those without money in both societies. Like Loach, Shaw reveals that attitudes towards the lower classes are desperately judgmental. Choose any extract from Act 1 or Act 2 in which Liza feels she has to defend herself from both spoken and unspoken prejudice on the part of those around her.
- Broken April by Ismail Kadare – another strong pairing, as Kadare reveals that the Kanun is more than just a code of honour and a customary law. It’s also a mechanism that keeps channeling money from the poorest in the region to the Prince and his cohort of administrators. The novel reveals a society every bit as lacking in compassion as Loach’s modern-day Britain; a focus on Mark Ukacierra’s chapter might be advisable here.
- The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – in Duffy’s poems, venal men are in positions of power, but often act ineffectually or weakly when it really counts. Speak about this alongside the bureaucrats in Loach’s film for an effective comparison.
- The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – in Act 1 Scene 3, the causes of discrimination against Shylock are revealed to stem from the biblical injunction against usury: the practice of profiting by lending money and charging interest on said loans. Substitute ‘usury’ for ‘benefits’ to make the point that the giving of money is an equally loaded issue in Loach’s film.
- Border Town by Shen Congwen – this pairing could work perfectly, as Congwen reverses typical stereotypes of the rural poor in his short novel. While lacking in money, the people of west Hunan province are virtuous, brave and upstanding. Prostitutes and bandits form part of the community, and people – despite their different circumstances – form healthy relationships with each other.
- The Visit by Friedrich Durrenmatt – in Act 3 of this play, it is revealed that the poverty of Guellen is not natural; it was engineered by Claire Zachanassian for the sole purpose of being able to manipulate the town’s citizens with her offer of cash for the life of Alfred Ill. Elsewhere in the play, Durrenmatt isn’t afraid to show how desperate and undignified a life stuck in poverty can be.
- Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – set in a remote mountain village during China’s cultural revolution, two teenage boys are sent to live with peasants in order to be re-educated. Sijie’s novel strips away the archetype of the ‘noble peasant’ to reveal the true poverty of the Phoenix of the Sky mountain.
- Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick – nowhere else on your Literature course is the banal nature of evil explored so throughly as in Demick’s work. She interviews North Korean defectors about what life was really like inside the world’s most secretive country during the severe famine of the mid-1990s.
Wider Reading and Research
- Poverty and the Working Class – a fantastic resource featuring primary and secondary texts, this British Library page will teach you all you need to know about the historic roots of modern prejudices against the poor.
- Talking About Poverty – visit the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and browse through some of their brilliant resources to continue the discussion about how and why people in the UK hold such trenchant beliefs about poverty.
- The Luckiest Nut in the World – a mixture of song, animation and archive footage telling the story of Senegal’s national debt and revealing how protectionist policy keeps rich countries rich.
- 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism – in 2010, Development Econ legend Ha-Joon Chang wrote one of my favourite books: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. I highly recommend this book for any IB student who cares about the way the world really works. In this talk he introduces his book and dispels some myths and prejudices that have come to dominate popular thinking.
- Poverty Understood – Dumisani Nyoni looks at how poverty is often represented in the West and challenges some of the assumptions we make about it.
- Why It’s More Expensive to Be Poor – a Twocents video explainer about what it’s like to live below the poverty line.
Categories:Time and Space