‘The’ Poor versus ‘Our’

I have just been reading an article by the 19th Century social reformer Mary Carpenter. As one of the many women who never married due to the shortage of men, she devoted her life to good causes, especially the homeless children who slept in barrels on the Bristol quayside. She wrote and championed into law what became known as the ‘MagnaCarta for unloved children’.

We have become so accustomed to the use of the definite article whilst referring to the poor and the needy it’s worth considering how recent to this term seems to be.

People mostly lived in small communities. Church leaders urged them to love their neighbours but also reminded them that but for the grace of god, or misfortune they could lose everything including their lives, at any time. Churches and cathedrals are home to cadaver tombs with warnings that you too will die. Anyone could be bankrupted by an accident, illness, death. Anyone could become poor. But the poor could also become criminals to survive, so caring for them helped those better off.

The poor were ‘ours’ because we risked joining them at any time. With no police, communities worked together and mistrusted strangers. With the horrors of covid and climate change it seems we are all at risk of losing what we hold dear, whether friends, families or incomes. Maybe it’s time to drop the ‘the’ for ‘our’ and demand our governments prioritise those most vulnerable in these hard times.