With No Fixed Address just around the corner, the YWCA Bloggers have chosen to take a look at poverty and homelessness for the month of August. It’s a theme that has been in both local and international news lately; the St. Catharines Standard’s Cheryl Clock has written a series about the Faces of Poverty here in Niagara, and Montreal, Glagslow and London were each under scrutiny for their anti-homeless spikes outside store fronts. Clock’s articles garnered respect from a few, but outrage from most. Comments that blame women living in poverty for having children, that those living on OW are lazy and could find full time work if they only tried, that all problems would be solved if someone living in poverty just quit smoking and drinking Timmy’s coffee…
These anti-homeless thoughts and acts have led our Bloggers to our Question of the Month:
Do we vilify the poor?
YES! It’s not a question of if we do, but rather how?
Sometimes, when we see someone panhandling, we are often rude to them or keep walking as if they don’t exist. It is not difficult to offer a respectful, “No, sorry”, rather than make the assumption that the person will take the money straight to the nearest Beer Store. In some cases of course, they will, but not all, and not all should be treated as if they are. Sometimes all they need are the resources to better themselves. Information goes a long way.
Those on Ontario Works are labelled as “lazy” and said to be “siphoning off the system”. When in reality, the Niagara Region has an appalling unemployment rate and many are collecting Ontario Works while still working part-time because that’s all that is available. Not to mention, many on Old Age Pensions or Widow’s Pensions need Ontario Works to supplement their income to match a basic living wage – a mere $599.00 per month. Considering rental amounts in the area are at least $400 for a room in shared accommodations, that doesn’t leave much left to eat.
There are those who need to use some of their food money for medication (many people are still not covered by the government) so they attend food trucks and soup kitchens only to be sneered at as if they are expecting a hand-out, when all they want is to relieve their hunger pains.
Being poor is not a crime. It’s an unfortunate circumstance many find themselves in by being born into it, by life throwing a curve ball, or, yes, making bad decisions. People make mistakes, and no matter the contributing factors, it doesn’t mean that they will always be poor or that they are “bad” people because of it. Assuming they are doesn’t help your community thrive, it only perpetuates the stigma that continues the cycle of poverty.
So, the question of the month is: Do we vilify the poor?
And the short answer is yes. The long answer: yes again.
But that’s simplistic. Perhaps we could also ask why do we vilify the poor and also, what kind of poor do we disparage? Do we knock the working poor? Or do we regard that group as the bravely struggling “deserving poor”? Do we vilify those who must access social assistance (in whatever form) as the “undeserving poor”? And who does the maligning and why? Deserving and undeserving seem moot distinctions to me, particularly if you consider poverty as something a great many of us could easily slide into. It may be a slow side for some, but for others, it’s a quick drop. Perhaps that is the who and the why. Many of us like to believe we work harder for our money than the “average Joe” and therefore deserve more compensation because of it. It’s a silly distinction. For many Canadians, poverty is just a paycheque, an illness, an untimely death, or an addiction away. And as such, it is both circumstantial and structural.
Circumstance and structure…these two words also describe my privilege as a Canadian with a reasonable income and assets. I’m keenly aware of my luck and how it could change at any moment. I only have to look to the generations that begat me to see that I am a product of good fortune, chance, and the burgeoning post World War II economy and its new social programs. Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. As a child, I was fascinated by my mother’s tales of prairie dust storms, men who rode the rails, and hungry strangers who came to her parent’s door to ask for a meal or a sandwich. I wondered who those people were and how they came to hitch a train from the east to the west. But it put a personal context to the history I would learn in school. Years later, my mother lost her father at 15, and a scant two weeks after, the family was turfed out of the company housing they lived in. Structure and circumstance provided my grandmother with a job. Her own family circumstances, and a changing post World War I society, meant she had the opportunity to train and work as a nurse before she married. She was fortunate enough to have that profession in her back pocket when her husband died and she was left with three children to raise. That job saved the family from destitution.
When I look at photos of my father’s childhood, I am reminded of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era images of down and out Oklahomans escaping the dust bowl. There he is in shabby overalls, standing with his sister and a cousin, looking like schmierfink urchins. He used to tell me that he was lucky. He had shoes when many of his classmates didn’t. In truth, circumstance and structure meant he was largely raised by whatever relative could take him in: his mother had died young, and his father had lost his job during the Depression and was living “on relief”. Circumstance and structure led him to join the air force during the war (when asked, he cheekily said he enlisted because “my daddy didn’t own a store”). After the war, circumstance and structure allowed him a university education, something that would have been previously unimaginable, despite his capabilities. His education was a result of new post war initiatives to help returning soldiers reintegrate through education (and that in itself was a result of a government fearing strife. With thousands of men coming home without ready jobs or job prospects, it was better to buy them off than to see them riot in the streets.)
So where am I going with this meandering family tale? Well, I wanted to put a lineage of sorts to our understanding of poverty. Prior to the advent of the welfare state, poverty was purely a private matter. If you were down on your luck, lost your job, or lost a breadwinner and could not find family able or willing to take you and your children in, well then, too bad for you. There wasn’t much but the workhouse and charity to keep you barely subsisting. For years after the Depression, the Canadian state and its provinces slowly built a social welfare system that used tax dollars for collectively responsible programs and projects. The state set up federal pension plans, unemployment insurance, disability pensions, and social assistance. Our governments implemented minimum wage laws, public health insurance systems, funded and constructed social housing, and built post secondary institutions (as well as set up student grant, now loan, systems to make schooling more attainable). There was a new middle class project, or at least a slim nod toward building a more equitable society. But slowly over the past 30 years, the idea of collective responsibility for a more equitable society began to erode. Social programs were slowly and steadily cut or funding offloaded, and the idea that the state should attempt to alleviate inequality was abandoned. Food banks became a growth industry even as the economy was still growing. And instead of viewing poverty and wealth as structurally enabled situations, poverty was once again constructed as something someone “brings on” himself or herself. Of course, wealth too was viewed as having everything to do with an individual’s personal skills and attributes, and nothing to do with circumstance and structure. And here lies the rub, despite the brutal deprivations of the Great Depression, the cyclical recessions of the last century and this one, despite all we know about how inequity makes us poorer, less healthy, more addicted, and less socially mobile as a society, we still think poverty is okay. It’s not. And it shouldn’t be a purely personal struggle either. We shouldn’t think we are immune to it or that it is just something that we can’t get rid of. I propose we also stop moralizing and bashing the poor for petty things such as how many children they have, or the cigarettes they may smoke, or Tim Horton’s coffees they may purchase. We should save our outrage for those who have the power to change society and make it more equitable (including making the minimum wage a living wage), but won’t.