By Jacqueline Loos
Many societies, both rich and poor, have groups of people that are disadvantaged. Social disadvantage takes away not only wealth, but also opportunities for a self-directed life, and the ability to envisage a better future, as I am observing during my field work in Romania. I don’t want to create the impression that Romania is particularly bad – I’m sure there are many other societies in the world with much the same patterns.
In many streets in Romania, people are asking for money – sometimes old people, who say they need medicine, but most of the time I see children, who say they are hungry. And I believe they are not pretending. These kids often don’t wear shoes, and instead of sitting on a school bench I see them strolling around town begging. I feel I have two possibilities: I can give them something, money, some food or whatever I have to give – or I don’t give them anything.
There is one reasonable theory for NOT giving them anything. I don’t want those kids to continue begging, and therefore I should not support their begging by giving them something. If I would like them to learn that they need to find proper work, wouldn’t it be better not to give them anything? And in the end, would I support the kids or will their parents take the money and spend it on alcohol?
But I also see another side: The kids are begging because there is no other way to earn money. Maybe their parents tried, but many of the poor people are systematically disadvantaged. They will not easily find a job, because jobs are rare and money to pay workers is rare. They grow up in poverty, have learned to beg since they were children, and so they send out their children for begging, too. The only luxuries they own might be some stolen mobile phones – and on days when nobody gives them food or money, they depend on stealing, so they have enough to eat. How does not giving the children anything help in any way to overcome this cycle?
I am convinced that most of the poor people do try, or have tried, to earn money. Some are selling handmade copperware, but I always wonder who stops on the main roads to buy these things? For hundreds of years, Romania’s poor were helping on the farms, making the horseshoes and the roof tiles – but now nobody buys the tiles, because cheaper and better ones are imported from Poland. There is no community holding together and supporting those who don’t own land and have no business of their own. As a consequence of people committing (mostly small) crimes, neighbours mistrust them and move away. The disadvantaged live in their own, separate parts in many villages.
By the side of the roads, you can see women dressed in sexy clothes, their hair dyed blonde. Sometimes they bring their children while waiting for somebody to stop – while they are looking for ‘business’. A friend told me that many of these women have been regularly raped since they were children, so now they try to make money out of what they are used to, anyway. Maybe these prostitutes want to buy medicine as well, for their children, or they don’t have another way how to get out of the vicious circle: No money, no possibilities, no hope.
Who am I to judge this? Once I asked a begging boy before I gave him some money “What do you want to do when you are an adult?” – He shrugged his shoulders… Poverty killed his ability to envisage a better future.