Since the current Dutch government-Rutte IV-has been in power, we have had a minister for poverty issues. I find Carola Schouten one of the most sympathetic ministers in our government–and that’s not just because she belongs to the political party that usually gets my vote. Minister Schouten comes across as someone who does her work with full conviction. That she is now dealing so intensely with poverty issues is in keeping with her personal history. She went through a phase in her own life when, as an unwed mother, she found it very challenging to make ends meet. It is to her credit that she speaks openly about this.
That a wealthy country like the Netherlands (fourth richest country in the world) needs a minister for poverty issues is actually appalling. Why is it that so many people for one reason or another end up below the poverty line ? According to recent statistics, that is the fate of at least 600,000 Dutch families. And with the current energy crisis and skyrocketing prices for electricity and especially gas, many more people will end up in poverty.
What is poverty? Looking at the common definitions used by government agencies, the family I grew up in lived in pure poverty for quite some time. For several years we had no running water in our house, no electricity and only a toilet at some distance from our house. I was given an old bicycle to go to secondary school at some 12 km from our home. A grant from the municipality in which we lived ensured that we could buy textbooks. There was no question of vacation. And eating out was limited to the occasional bag of chips (which cost 25 cents in those days). We were poor, but I don’t remember feeling really poor–even though I knew, of course, that our lives were different from those of most of my classmates. I had gotten used to there being very little of everything.
During the first year of our marriage, it was not easy to make ends meet. We were in the United States, where I was pursuing my master’s degree at Andrews University. We arrived with a thousand dollars in our pockets, worked extremely hard (in addition to studying) all year, and then had about a hundred dollars left. We enjoyed that year in many ways, but, viewed objectively, we were living near the poverty line!
And now? Are we poor or rich? No, we are not poor. We are not in danger of being hit by the energy crisis. We do see the supermarket prices going up, but it has not yet dramatically changed our shopping patterns. We went on vacation this year and visited one of the local pizzerias last night. Poor people cannot afford to do this. We are not rich compared to those who are high earners and live in a big villa with one or more luxury automobiles in the double garage. But we are rich compared to the large numbers of people in all sorts of places around the world who, even today, don’t know where to get the food for their malnourished children. And we are certainly also rich compared to the hundreds of thousands in our own country who, through no fault of their own, have fallen into poverty.
I hope that our government–with broad political support–will soon come up with measures to help the people who have now fallen, or are in danger of falling, into poverty because of the energy crisis. And that the Poverty Minister’s policies will make a difference, and that much will be done structurally to achieve and ensure greater social justice.
As a Christian, I realize that the Bible indicates that God pays extra attention to people on the margins. It is clear that He expects people, who say they believe in Him, to also have an eye for the “poor” around them and to demonstrate that with their actions.
In doing so, however, there is a problem. Most of us live in our own “bubble.” I do not have people in my family and friends who have to go to the food bank or are in danger of being evicted because of rent arrears. However, perhaps in the coming winter the time has come for me and others in my “bubble” to step out of that “bubble” and share some of our wealth, more actively than we have done so far, with those who are at the brink of survival.