I recently had the dubious privilege of having a conversation with someone living abroad about migrants and taxation. They were grousing about all the refugees who had arrived in their country, taking welfare money and living the good life on it. Ironically, the person I was talking to was South Asian, presumably child of an immigrant family (so not ethnically of the country they lived in, but only by dint of geography) but seemed very clear on their stance about Poor People: that people like them work hard and pay their tax only to have it purloined by the state and given to lazy wastrels with a hundred children who have never done a day’s work in their lives. “The lazy poor” has become such a pervasive trope across our capitalist world, but in welfare states the grumbling is the loudest.

It’s obvious that it should be, because welfare states use the most tax money on providing their citizens with a basic level of dignity and right to life in the shape of free healthcare, schooling and housing. The funding comes from the people, for the people—ideally your tax bracket is determined by your income bracket, and the collective pool of money is used for the greater good. It’s really democracy at it’s best, because no children should be deprived of an education, or families a home, or anyone medical attention they can afford. As someone who lives in a country where the richest citizens don’t pay any tax, it’s astounding to me how wonderful it is that some people have access to things like social security or a National Health Services (NHS), which operate on a pretty decent level. Our public healthcare is so terrible we can’t conceive of ever taking ourselves or someone we love to a government-funded hospital. Our public school is so abysmal that anyone with two pennies to knock together will prefer to send their child to a private school, no matter how modest. Scores of employees I have or have had have had untreated ailments nearly all their lives; one has such terrible astigmatism she will never be able to see better than a certain, quite limited level because she wasn’t diagnosed in time. So many bright-eyed maids have told me all they ever wanted to do was study. There is so much potential, just waiting to be channeled, and all we can do is contemptuously write them all off as indifferent, lazy people who just haven’t got the right work ethic.

What is vital to understand is the dynamics of poverty. Sure, many people have been able to pull themselves out of their hovels but that is largely down to grit, intelligence and circumstance. It’s not as easy as “work hard”. So many people’s destinies are already determined by their extenuating circumstances, and those circumstances are nearly impossible to overcome without a few minor miracles. If you are born in a home, let’s say the fifth of eight children, and live in a shack at the edge of town, what are the chances you will ever go to school? Let’s say you get into a free school. Who is teaching you? Do you have money for shoes? Pencils? Is it safe for you to get to school, is the school itself a safe place? Is home safe? Are your parents related, as many are, and landed you with a disease you don’t even know you have? Have you had parasite infestations from infancy because your drinking water was never clean, and as a result you just have never been particularly healthy? There is no free housing provided by our state. The healthcare and education we’ve already considered. So chances are that the average poor person is unskilled, barely housed and barely fed because dal is 100 rupees a price-controlled kilo. Even if you work twelve hours a day at your job as a labourer, a cleaning woman, a gardener etc chances are pretty high that you aren’t even getting minimum wage because there’s no state enforcement of it. Yet you’re the lazy one. You’re the one whom more privileged people compare to themselves with a disdainful sniff—I work X hours a week, don’t I. I went to school for fifteen years, didn’t I. Well of course you did, and you’re reaping the benefits of it. But let’s not pretend that privilege was the result of the sheer dumb luck of you being born in a certain milieu. That anyone, given the same opportunities as you, would be just as successful if not more. We’re a nation of illiterates who are on Facebook and Whatsapp, and if there are hundreds of people who can’t read or write but have figured out how to send voice notes, then hats off to our ingenuity.

Nobody is poor on purpose. Nobody deliberately says to themselves well this is great, living off fifty pounds a week or below the poverty line. That they really enjoy raising their children in cramped council estates full of crime and drugs or in tiny cramped mohallas with overflowing gutters and rents they can barely afford. Nobody on benefits or welfare is out to make a quick buck because they are not getting that kind of money, and people in third world countries like ours would die of shock at even the thought of getting money from the government so they can live with an inkling of dignity. Poverty exists because of the toxic systems of capitalism that survive on inequality. Inequality creates cheap labour and endless, exploitative needs that have to be satisfied by more production. The day we look towards creating a more equitable system of economic prosperity, one that provides for the most amount of people, is the day “the lazy poor” will have a fighting chance.

The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.

m.malikhussain@gmail.com