Welfare

How long, Lord, must the poor remain poor?

Feb 2010    

IT IS DINNER TIME and the Ng family (not their real name) get together in the cramped living room for their only meal of the day – rice and vegetables fried with anchovies.

Dirty mattresses are strewn all over the floor of the two-room flat and a middle-aged man is sitting uncomfortably in a rickety rattan chair, the only piece of furniture in the room. A tired looking woman and her children, (aged 10 to 18) are on the floor, balancing plates of food on their laps. The father is unable to work as he is ill and the mother works occasionally as a coffee-shop assistant earning about $750 a month.

It has been a few years since this family first received help from a family service centre and they are still needing help to cope with their daily living expenses.

It is extremely difficult for chronically poor families like the Ngs to lift themselves out of their state of subsistence due to various reasons such as a lack of sustained employment, low education, illness or physical or mental disabilities. While we hear of rags-to-riches stories once in a while, most remain in poverty throughout their lifetimes and unfortunately, this cycle is repeated in their children’s generation.

Do the poor want to be poor?
The question may seem silly but those living in prolonged deprivation develop a “hopelessness” mindset that is perhaps more detrimental than physical hardship. There is little resource, time or energy left to think or plan beyond a time frame of days while the adults in the family are worrying about putting the next meal on the table. The poor struggle to keep their children in any school, while most parents worry about getting their children into better schools. Enrichment classes and paid tuition are out of their reach. The stress worsens, if the children, like many, need the motivation to study.

Mary, the Ngs’ youngest daughter, is in Secondary 3 but she is already 16 and has no interest in her school work. Without parental guidance and motivation, she failed her Secondary 3 examinations twice. Not motivated or disciplined to study, she languishes at home, watching TV and eating.

While it is highly unlikely that Mary’s parents consciously want her and her siblings to live like they do into adulthood, they lack the will or the mindset to do anything about it. Coined the “culture of poverty” by many experts in the field, their world view is characterised by a sense of defeatist resignation.

Lydia, the Ngs’ eldest daughter, 19, is bright and after her ”O” levels managed to secure a place in a polytechnic. However, she dropped out after a year and now works as a cashier at a supermarket. She plans to get married and have children soon.

Lydia, if she had continued with her education, would have had a fair chance of elevating herself, if not her family, out of chronic poverty. Instead, the family could not provide the support or encouragement for her to finish her polytechnic course. The cycle of poverty repeats itself as she remains unable to garner the skills or create enough capital to propel her out of her parents’ poverty trap.

Getting them off this wheel of chronic poverty
There are no easy or quick ways to stop this wheel from making its turns every generation as there are complex social, institutional and economical factors at play.

The poor will be always be with us. However, we can surely slow the wheel down so that some can get off. And they do.

To do this, the counter forces need to be strong, consistent and sustained over a period of time. By Pearl Lee

Pearl Lee is the Director, Communications & Fund-raising, of the Methodist Welfare Services.

MCS 125th Anniversary Community Outreach

Meaningful sustained help needed

THIS YEAR, AS THE METHODIST CHURCH IN SINGAPORE (MCS) celebrates 125 years of God’s blessings, we want to remember families like the Ngs (see main story) and as a Christ-centred community, we want to make a galvanised effort to alleviate chronic poverty in our society.

The MCS has asked the Methodist Welfare Services (MWS) to run a Community Outreach project which aims to mobilise local churches and their members into active service; to give and/ or befriend these chronically poor individuals and families.

The MCS hopes to raise enough funds to provide sustained financial help to about 800 families for one year and perhaps

even beyond. This can be done by local churches organising fund-raising activities or encouraging members to make individual pledges to help meet the target of $1.25 million.

Church members are also encouraged to volunteer as befrienders to help disburse the funds. By visiting the families regularly to give them the funds, we can also provide other forms of encouragement and support that may just be the springboard from which some of the poor can lift themselves off the poverty wheel.

For more details on the Outreach project, please refer to the official MCS 125th Anniversary Community Outreach brochure or visit our website, www.mws.org.sg

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