A colleague and dear friend of mine, who has worked for many years as a tour guide in Iceland, mentioned to me that every so often a curious tourist would ask her about ‘poor people’ in Iceland. She would usually just reply with the stock answer – that poverty is not much of an issue in modern Iceland. But she admitted that she didn’t know what to tell these tourists now. This stock answer – the belief that poverty is non-existent in Iceland – is partially the result of a carefully managed image of Iceland that is presented to outsiders.
In a way it is part of the usual kind of simulacra that one finds in the tourist literature in general and not just in Iceland. Yet this is no mere construct of the tourist industry, but a widely held belief in contemporary Iceland and forms a key part of the national identity. The reason for my friend’s crisis of faith was that we had the above mentioned discussion while sorting through bags of clothes that were donated to the charity Mæðrastyrksnefnd (Mothers’ Support Committee), located here in Reykjavík.
Mæðrastyrksnefnd has been helping those struggling to make ends meet since 1928 and continues to do so today. I volunteered at this organisation for two years as part of my field research for my doctorate in anthropology, and spent another two years as an occasional volunteer while further researching, thinking and writing about the issues connected to charity in Iceland and in wealthy countries in general. My friend also volunteered at Mæðrastyrksnefnd and described to me feelings of shock, disbelief and bouts of sleeplessness when she first started working there, similar to what some other staff members reported to me as well. If many native-born Icelanders have little appreciation of the daily struggles faced by low-income workers, pensioners and social assistance recipients, it is really not surprising that these idealistic views of Icelandic society continue to circulate and are exported abroad as well.
There is of course much to celebrate about Icelandic society and, yes, even the social welfare system – especially so when you consider the standards of living elsewhere. But the notion that a society based upon the free market system can exist without certain patterned inequalities is questionable to say the least.
During the course of my research I grew tired, so very tired, of constantly being told ‘there are really no poor people in Iceland’ when the subject of my research came up in conversation. One pattern I noticed was that these comments tended to be made by people with little or no connection to these issues either personally or professionally. Charity workers, nurses, critical scholars, the staff and officials of the municipal social services, the police and so forth may not agree as to the causes of and solutions to these issues, but the people I spoke to with experience in these areas certainly never denied there were problems. I was also warned by some of my Icelandic colleagues that I may be denigrated as a ‘foreigner who doesn’t know any better’ if I ever discussed my research outside of the cloistered halls of academia. So be it. Some of my Icelandic colleagues are accused of being ‘politically motivated’ by the critics of their work. Anyone who challenges the status quo will be trashed in one way or another.
I am certainly not the first to note the pervasive discourses that present Iceland in the best possible light in a number of regards. I have often referred to this, somewhat cynically perhaps, as the ‘Iceland is wonderful’ discourse – in reference to, among other things, the prosperity of modern Iceland as found in its high standards of living, low levels of unemployment, and the general lack of easily visible socio-economic disparities. In many ways this is true. But it has also been well documented in the social science literature that Iceland spends proportionately less of its GDP on social welfare programs than the other Nordic states and even some states in Western Europe. The Icelandic social welfare system developed somewhat later than other comparable systems and which, once in place, offers comparatively meagre benefits in a more restrictive manner, to the point where the term ‘Icelandic exceptionalism’ has even been coined. In all fairness, Canada, my former home, is certainly no beacon of enlightenment either – the appalling conditions that many First Nations and Inuit people have been forced to live under is but one shameful example among many. But the routine way in which structural inequality in Iceland is denied or trivialised at first mildly amused me, then annoyed me, and then, especially after some of the clients of Mæðrastyrksnefnd shared aspects of their lives with me, it began to frustrate me.
I have long pondered why these discourses have such an appeal and are often accepted without much rigorous questioning. Multiple sources, including the UN, The Nordic Social-Statistical Committee, Statistics Iceland, and the work of certain Icelandic scholars, have pegged the poverty rate in Iceland at about 10% – that is, 10% of the population subsists at income levels considered to be below the poverty line for the nation as a whole. There are 300,000 people in this country, so do the math. Yet such numbers seem to fail to impress. Upon learning the nature of my research, people from all walks of life have routinely asked me ‘how many people go to Mæðrastyrksnefnd?’ My reply that on average it was approximately 120 people a week (147 a week so far in 2007) – a figure which fails to take into account the number of children and other family members behind each individual client – resulted in expressions of disbelief but which often turned into tirades that questioned the need and motives of the clients. I won’t even include some of the less kind things I have heard. “Oh they are not really poor, they are only going to Mæðrastyrksnefnd to get something for free,” was the most common reaction. Similar sentiments were also expressed by a former Prime Minister a few years back. When I asked for the supporting evidence of their knowledge, the reply was usually something along the lines of “Oh, my cousin’s best friend’s neighbour knows such-and-such who goes to Mæðrastyrksnefnd.” The smallness of Iceland does not mean the gossip network is necessarily any more accurate.
But consider what it implies when the clients of charities are dismissed as only ‘wanting something for free.’ The argument, as I see it, is thus: ‘Rain or shine, snow or sleet, 130 or 140 or so people each week throughout most of the year turn to Mæðrastyrksnefnd to wait in line, provide identification to an interviewer and face questions about their income and personal lives, in order to receive two bags of groceries and access to donated clothing for themselves and their children, all because they have nothing better to do or only want something for free.’ It sounded more and more preposterous with each passing week that I spent observing the daily practices of this organisation and getting to know some of the people who went there. As one staff member from Mæðrastyrksnefnd put it to me, “No one comes here for fun.” Indeed. It is most certainly not fun to have to ask for help from a private organisation run by private citizens. It is not fun to have to turn to the state for assistance either, even though this is a publicly funded entitlement of citizenship or residency. But people have to do what they have to do for the sake of themselves and their families in certain situations. Denying or trivialising the situation will certainly not contribute to a productive dialogue about the issues.
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