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25 January, 2020  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The culture of poverty

What poorer Ukrainians think of subsidies, the rich, and themselves

The scale of poverty in Ukraine is not easy to assess. Typically, researchers and officials float numbers ranging from 10% to 60%, depending on their methodology. However great the gap in the results, the impact of the problem is unambiguous. What makes assessments hard is that poverty is not just a question of material lack, but also a set of socio-psychological circumstances, convictions and behavioral models that, put together, establish a kind of culture – or perhaps more correctly subculture – of poverty. This subculture is handed down from generation to generation, fosters the recreation of poverty even as objective economic indicators continue to climb upward. This makes combating poverty impossible unless the way of thinking of the poor is understood.

The latest attempt to study the subculture of poverty in Ukraine was undertaken by the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES) in May 2019 and Ukrainian Catholic University’s Analytical Center. Combining sociological methods such as focus groups, in-depth semi-structured interviews and questionnaires made it possible to expose some of the characteristics of the mentality of poorer Ukrainians. Although this was only a pilot study, its results made it possible to understand not just the poor but the overall mood in Ukrainian society.

For starters, how do poorer Ukrainians see themselves? According to the respondents in the study, more than 60% of Ukrainians consider themselves impoverished, 26% see themselves as average, and about 11% consider themselves well off. True, respondents found it hard to place themselves in the social structure. Poor people often offer vague generalizations, such as “I’m just like everybody else,” “there’s enough for everything,” and so on. They don’t see social assistance, such as breaks or subsidies as a marker of poverty but are more inclined to think of it as “little cheats” that everyone takes advantage when the opportunity arises. Nor do they think the inability to buy expensive gadgets like smart phones, tablets and so on a sign of poverty – especially since even poorer Ukrainians have access to them these days, even if it’s through penny-pinching, borrowing, loans and so on.

They think of poverty in a very literal sense, as a chronic inability to satisfy basic needs, among which the leading items are buying decent food and paying utility bills. However, attitudes towards actual poverty vary. The poverty that comes with age, inability to work, large families, and so on is seen as socially acceptable and worthy of sympathy. However, they condemn poverty associated with alcoholism, sloth, the inability to manage money, and living on welfare payments.

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Poorer Ukrainians also look at the middle class through the prism of able to satisfy basic needs. To them, people in the middle class are those who can feed themselves properly, who own their homes, and travel abroad for vacations. Even while being aware of the social distance, the poor are positive about the middle class and connect its better standing primarily with entrepreneurial activity – mostly small and micro business – and emphasize the personal characteristics needed to engage in it: to be responsible, hard-working and independent. In general, the middle class, even if narrowed down to micro and small business, is a positive example for how to get out of poverty for the poorer element in the population.

When it comes to the rich, however, those they consider the elite or upper class, Ukraine’s poorer population have a clearly negative attitude. Perceiving wealth as the unrestricted ability to satisfy their basic needs, they associate it with greed, excessive consumption, illegal sources of income, and so on. However, the researchers noted that respondents were most negative towards the “distant wealthy,” that is, to an abstract “elite” and “oligarchs” about whom they only knew from the press. They felt greater loyalty towards the wealthy who were closer to them, such as local business owners. Despite their bias, respondents found excuses for them, noting that they worked hard, that they were good at what they did, and so on. 

So, it appears that poorer Ukrainians see social inequality as tied mostly to people’s personal qualities and individual life situations. There’s a positive aspect to this: at least Ukraine’s poorer citizens don’t tend to blame their situation on the “bourgeois bloodsuckers” as Marxists liked to call them. On the other hand, the researchers note that this kind of “individualized” view of poverty tends to encourage people to accept their situation and to see difficulties as a judgment of themselves. This kind of fatalism affects people’s economic behavior, which tends to be dominated by passive strategies. The most common response on growing difficulties is economizing: settling for lower-quality food and buying used clothing. In other words, instead of looking for a way to overcome their poverty, poorer Ukrainians are more inclined to adapt to it. An important feature in the lives of the poor are various forms of indebtedness, from small bank loans to the purchase of food on credit, reduced utility rates, social benefits, subsidies and other forms of public assistance.

Interestingly, poorer Ukrainians tend to look down on social benefits: benefits to single mothers encourage women to raise kids on their own while subsidies for residential services foster unofficial employment or deliberate unemployment, and discourage saving. This illustrates very clearly that the current quasi-soviet system of social support system is exhausted as its downsides are evident even to its primary beneficiaries.

Among active strategies for getting out of poverty, poorer Ukrainians first mention migrating for work, but they even look at this with skepticism. Typically they point out that migrant labor involves quite a few complications and often does not really lead to significant long-term improvement in material standing. Moreover, personal experience as migrant workers is connected to “culture shock,” as they are expected to work far more intensively than at home. What’s more, after they return home, migrant workers admit that they lose the pace, that is, they start working less intensively, which understandably leads to economic consequences.

In talking about their jobs in Ukraine, poorer Ukrainians generally are not able to clearly outline their own job duties and functions. At the same time, they are all convinced that they should be paid, on average, three times more than what they are currently earning. This testifies to the poor organization of work by employers and the attitudes of employees themselves to their work. Moonlighting, generally in the shadow sector, is also common among poorer Ukrainians, not the least because it is easier to qualify for subsidies and other forms of public assistance if they can officially claim to be jobless.

The authors of the study asked their respondents to suggest ways to overcome poverty in Ukraine, but the respondents seemed to have trouble with this. On one hand, they pointed out that people need to work for themselves, but on the other, they expected the government to ensure jobs, a decent salary, moderate utility rates, and other conditions. Clearly, the liberal model is blended with traditional paternalism in their minds: they consider that those in power are the reason for poverty because they are not “of the people,” not “patriotic,” and don’t care about ordinary people. All this leads to a predictable political orientation. The most common catch-phrases that appeal to them are “order,” “stability,” “social protection,” and a “strong” leader who can ensure it all.

When it comes to their own participation in transforming society, although they blame Ukrainian society for being passive, they tend to call for a more abstracted form of “civic society.” What’s more, they don’t include themselves in this “civic society” that is supposed to fight for its rights, blaming their own passivity on the poverty that forces them to expend all their energies on just surviving from day to day. But this is not the most important aspect revealed by the study. Most respondents, and they were members of the poorer element of Ukrainian society, are afraid to seriously improve their material standing. This fear is tied to their perception that wealth is accompanied by greater risks, possible illegal activity, and that a wealthy lifestyle is a socially unacceptable, or at least suspicious phenomenon.

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In a sense, the subculture of poverty creates a vicious cycle around those who are involved in it. The lives of the poor come down to a struggle for daily survival, but despite the hardship of such a situation, it also is beginning to be accepted as the norm or fate. The most obvious strategy is one of passive adaptation to difficulties and the expectation that the vicious cycle will one day be broken thanks to some “higher power,” in the shape of the government and an outstanding leader.

This makes it clear that poverty cannot be fought simply by spending more on public assistance in its various forms. Clearly the government’s strategic objective must be to stimulate its poorer citizens to be more actively engaged in improving their own situation. How exactly to do this is a question with many unknown factors. But even in the best case, this will cost political ratings: those who were used to being given fish for the last few decades aren’t going to be thrilled that someone is now giving them a fishing rod instead.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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