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Out of sight, out of mind: Legislating poverty away

Published in The Jakarta Post (
No compassion, that’s the law
The Jakarta Post , Jakarta Fri, 09/28/2007 3:30 PM Opinion
Patrick Guntensperger

Once again our political leaders have demonstrated their fixation on appearances at the expense of reality. It will now be illegal to beg, busk, or squeegee in Jakarta and it will be illegal to give money to a beggar, busker or squeegeer. These new city ordinances along with regulations against sidewalk vendors, and other businesses on public thoroughfares, are aimed, it seems, at making the city more user-friendly.

It is time that our legislators started to grasp the obvious…you can’t legislate poverty away. You can’t simply create the illusion of a happy, prosperous population by telling those who are not happy or prosperous to go away. First of all, it is unreasonable to punish or exile people for the crime of being poor.

Secondly, it won’t work anyway.

To address the first issue, the people of this city are, on the whole, extraordinarily generous and compassionate. That can be seen by anyone who has observed that the people of Jakarta routinely give to the less fortunate; they give at intersections, they give on overpasses, on street corners, in markets, and they give to people who knock on their doors.

This generosity is part of the fabric of their lives. We who are fortunate enough to have more than the bare necessities of life can readily see that to live under crushing, grinding poverty is a fate no one should have to endure. To make the lives of some of our fellow human beings just that tiny bit less brutal, most of us give what we can, when we can.

To be sure, we would prefer not to have to do so. Certainly we do it, at least partly, out of guilt at having so much that the contrast with those who have so little becomes an embarrassment. But most of us are rational enough to realize that pretending that poverty and wealth disparity do not exist does nothing to relieve that guilt; that hiding our failure as a society to provide for our weakest members doesn’t absolve us of responsibility for their minimal welfare. Closing our eyes and our hearts to the suffering of others is not part of what makes us human.

Certainly it’s true that there are those who cynically abuse the generosity of others by begging when they are capable of earning an income. Certainly it’s true that there are some professional beggars who exaggerate their poverty in an effort to maximize the charity they seek.

Most of us, however, are not sufficiently self-deluded to pretend that such deception relieves us of our moral obligation to show compassion. Because there are those who take advantage of the kindness of strangers is not grounds to let the genuinely disadvantaged suffer when we can help; we all know that.

Well, all of us, except our lawmakers, it seems.

What is particularly cynical about the new laws is that they are an attempt by members of local government to apply a cosmetic covering to their own failures. Clearly, the number of poor people reduced to begging suggests a failure to govern in a fashion that provides opportunities for people to earn a living.
Very, very few people would prefer to subsist on charity solicited by begging if work was available. If the same effort was put into job creation as was put into drafting legislation to hide the problem, there would be a lot fewer beggars to legislate against.

And that brings us to the second issue. The legislation simply won’t work. Whatever city ordinances and bylaws we may create, beggars will beg rather than starve. In the absence of any societal relief from hunger, a human being will seek help from fellow human beings. You can’t demand that they simply shut up and starve quietly to death.

This legislation will have the effect of opening up new ways to make the lives of our most profoundly underprivileged even more hellish. Not only will fewer people exercise the charity that is one of the pillars of Islam and a cornerstone of Christianity, but the police will use the law as an excuse to extort more graft from the weakest members of our society.

The authorities will now have an additional weapon with which to harass the poor. For such is human nature. If a law cannot realistically be enforced, the people charged with enforcing it will seek compensation for not doing so. In the process an additional burden will be placed upon the most profoundly disadvantaged people in the city.

The genie is out of the bottle; there is no realistic hope that these regressive laws will be repealed. They will stay on the books but will not be enforced, except selectively, as a new rent seeking opportunity for the authorities. Perhaps now that our legislators have taken the ineffective, uncompassionate approach of dealing with the superficial appearance of poverty, they can turn their attention to the real problem of dealing with poverty itself.


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