In the past five years, Taiwanese have heard the word “poverty” come into increasing use and have begun to take more notice of it as a society. In 2006, we started hearing of the “M-shaped society,” a description of the phenomenon of extremes of rich and poor where the middle class has been assimilated into either side. In 2007, people were talking about the “new poor” and in 2008, the “working poor” — people who have jobs, but are nevertheless subsisting on or below the poverty line. Then, in 2009 the talk was of the “NEETs,” an acronym for “not in employment, education or training.”
More recently, we have been discussing the “young poor,” to refer to the younger generation who are now living on less in real terms than the previous generation at their age. We are using all kinds of words to describe the phenomenon of poverty. And it’s not just a case of “there, but for the grace of God go I”: Its reverberations are political, too.
In response, the government likes quoting all sorts of statistics to show the public that there is, contrary to appearances, economic growth, that incomes are demonstrably on the increase and that people have nothing to fear. How is it that we have come to this point, in which one so clearly contradicts the other, and in which the two sides of the argument seem irreconcilable?
The answer, it seems, is that for the majority of Taiwanese, the poverty issue is not so much a material issue and more an emotive one. That is to say, the thing that troubles more people than poverty in material terms is what we might call the “poverty of hope.”
So what does it mean when one talks of the poverty of hope? Consider people of any social class, who are powerless to change the situation in which they find themselves. They are likely to think to themselves: “You know, no matter what I do, things will never get better.” Such feelings of hopelessness are not restricted to the unemployed or the poor, they can also strike temporary workers, the self-employed, blue-collar workers dissatisfied with their circumstances and people who have tried to move into another field, but were ultimately frustrated in their attempts.
As some may have already surmised, the aforementioned groups are larger, as a percentage of the population, in Taiwan than in other, more developed countries, which is another major consideration for the public. The psychological state that this induces in some people makes it increasingly difficult for them to engage meaningfully in society. If society has no need of them, they feel that they have no need of society. This phenomenon is known as social exclusion and it can become a positive feedback loop in which the situation only deteriorates over time.
In other words, people become increasingly devoid of hope. In Japan, social scientists have been talking of a “hope gap society” in which even feelings of hope have become polarized and unequally distributed in society.
This is to be felt even more keenly among the group of people who will be voting for the first time in the upcoming election, as they have little recourse but to extend their time in education, whiling away what should otherwise be the productive years of their youth in university campuses. The situation has created a new generation of people whose reality is informed by inertia, indifference and despondency, in what is undoubtedly a form of social exclusion, for without a sense of belonging one naturally also feels a poverty of hope.