Frédéric Viguier, a Sociologist Defending “The Cause of the Poor”

Frédéric Viguier, who dedicated his dissertation to this topic, is taking part in the seminar in Cerisy on the work of Joseph Wresinski. A lecturer at the Institute of French Studies of New York University, Frédéric Viguier is leading research on different approaches to addressing inequality. Véronique Soulé interviewed him for the ATD Fourth World Journal.

How did the perception of people in poverty change with Wresinski?

Wresinski insisted that people living in poverty be responsible for their own lives, not people to be rehabilitated despite themselves, or lazy people who chose their fate. In the 50s, this radical approach was brand new. It was only shared by other movements originating from social Catholicism.

Wresinski was the most consistent among these movements in his will to apply this demand to the end, to all the steps of social policies – their design, their assessment…

Hasn’t the whole world of social activism followed?

ATD Fourth World remained faithful to this demand, always wanting to include Fourth World activists. In the 90s, this demand started to be felt by a certain number of associations. Yet the worlds of aid to development and the fight against poverty remain divided. Many people still think that we know better than the poor what must be done for them and that their views are no help, but rather an obstacle.

Has that had an impact on the social welfare system?

All the public policy actors today claim it. But whether they do it in reality is another question…

We are in an ambivalent world. The ideal insertion, embedded in the law on the RMI (minimum income benefit in France) is perceived by some as a right of those in the worst poverty. But it is seen by others, more and more people indeed, as a duty and a pretext to take them to account, make them feel guilty and subject to sometimes Kafkaesque administrative processes where their transport issues, their child care problems, their relationship to time are just brushed aside… Social protection may be extremely finicky and turn a right into almost impossible duties. People in poverty are faced with a very confident welfare state, overbearing and sometimes punitive.

We hear a great deal about people who are “dependent” on welfare

We moved from a rather positive time in the 80s and 90s to a rather negative time. The RMI device, which has become the RSA (active solidarity revenue – another part of the French welfare system) may be questioned, which did not give people living in poverty, the lower working classes threatened by unemployment, any possibility to control the way the system is working.

That goes back to reducing any type of collective resilience – trade unions, main left-wing parties… One of the problems is that there is not enough unity among those associations fighting poverty which look after people who are very far from finding jobs, and the trade unions which are very weak. The world of those who live from work is divided between ‘insiders’, more or less well defended, and ‘outsiders’ who are not defended at all.

Is the cause of the poor well defended today?

ATD Fourth World has done a very good job – the fight against stereotypes, denouncing discrimination. But the supports which have proven so significant for the cause of the poor have been weakened. On top of the trade unions there has been a weakening of the church’s social doctrine. In the high administration circles, a new generation of more technocratic welfare civil servants is striving to reform the system focusing on the need to send the poor out to work, make them more competitive in a dysfunctional job market, moving away from the big ideals of social justice.

What is the point of a seminar like this?

It is interesting to reflect about what made Joseph Wresinski’s work possible at the time. He was very much influenced by the powerful workers’ movement after World War II and very much in favour of the welfare dream, in terms of material protection, but also of workers’ social dignity. Where do we stand today with this collective hope? We must not be pessimistic. We have to be realistic about the current environment as we decide how to move forward together in the future.

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