First world poverty should stimulate local charity

Watching from afar, it is hard to imagine that people in developed countries suffer the privations that are commonplace elsewhere. European and North American governments spend staggering sums to develop and protect their economies – amounts that dwarf comparable programmes in the rest of the Americas or the Caribbean. Between December 2007 and July 2010, for example, the US Federal Reserve loaned US$16.1 trillion in emergency funds to local and foreign financial institutions. During that time, in addition to massive stimulus spending, the government arranged a bailout of General Motors that ended up costing US taxpayers $11.2 billion. Years later, mired in a “jobless recovery” the Federal government continues to spend in earnest. Last month it allocated US$1.4 billion in grants for job training.

What we often fail to notice beneath these confidence-building measures is the widespread hardship caused by the periodic downturns of the economy, and the chronic unemployment, or underemployment, that they produce. According to the New York Times, only 59 per cent of the US population reported having a job in July, a figure that hasn’t improved in a year and remains close to the lowest levels recorded since the late 1970s. In the United Kingdom, official statistics released in February indicate that there are 1.04 million people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are classified as Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET), a number that has fallen by just 38,000 in the past year.

The case of David Clapson, a 59-year-old Englishman who died last June after spending his final days hunting for one of those hard-to-find jobs, gives some idea of how poorly these statistics convey the daily grind of unemployed life. With retrospect, Clapson’s death seems entirely avoidable, as does the grim situation into which he was forced by a loss of income. Clapson, a diabetic, died of ketoacidosis due a severe lack of insulin – partly because the electricity to his apartment had been disconnected and he could no longer store insulin in the fridge. An autopsy showed that his stomach was empty – the food in his apartment amounted to six teabags, a can of soup and a tin of sardines past its expiry date. His bank account was almost empty and his mobile phone only had a few pennies of credit left on it. Clapson had been cut off from welfare benefits after failing to attend two appointments that monitored his job-seeking progress. Last year 871,000 people lost some or all of their welfare benefits payments in the UK for at least a month, a setback that would have pushed many of them into similar situations.

It hardly needs saying that worse conditions exist elsewhere. (The Guardian recently found that migrant workers constructing buildings for Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup had not been paid for more than a year and were forced to subsist with illegal work.) That misses the point, however, which is that even in developed economies with longstanding welfare programmes, millions of people have barely managed to get through the Great Recession. Their considerable frustration and misery is often invisible to others, even within their own countries. A recent review of the Jobseekers Act sanctions used against Clapson concluded that communications with sanctioned claimants were overly formal and legalistic, lacked personalised explanations, obscured the process of applying for appeals or hardship payments, and were “particularly difficult for the most vulnerable claimants to understand.”

While the Caribbean has undeniably felt the aftershocks of the global financial recession, the sort of isolation that people like David Clapson experienced is harder to imagine in our close-knit communities. First world welfare may lie well beyond the capacities of most regional governments, but we also benefit from the fact that we live in smaller towns and cities and have a far more neighbourly and cooperative culture. The shocking poverty in New Orleans that came to light in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and the suffering of thousands of others, like David Clapson, deeply isolated in the middle of large, urban populations, adrift in the middle of relatively robust economies, should stir our collective conscience. There is always much more that could be done to alleviate the suffering of those who exist at the economic margins of a society. And the duty to do so falls equally on all of us.