Friday, June 22, 2007

Two Incomes, Two Cars and the Joneses

Many times, I am tired of living in the community I live in.

In the Niagara Region, the legions of the poor are quite large: one in five, I heard. However, Niagara is different than other regions, such as Toronto and Hamilton, in its approach to dealing with it. We have major food banks, leadership of which is only glorified and revelled. We have agencies that pursue "middle class" solutions to 'help' the poor. They recognize the problems, but want to get poor people to mingle more with rich people with the hopes that some of the wealth just might be contagious. Niagara is known like many other places for its addiction to charity ... every week, somebody is chopping off their hair to donate to Wigs for Kids or some related cause. It is getting old. People organize walks for MS, Heart and Stroke, Cancer Research and even recently, a walk was held to raise awareness about schizophrenia. One thing Niagara never has walks for is anything to raise the awareness of the plight of its poor.

Niagara Region is a study in contrasts. There are very wealthy people living among us. Niagara-on-the-Lake is known to be a haven for the wealthy, particularly the retired wealthy. Social class is very structured in Niagara as well, meaning people who are in each class know which class they "belong" to and what opportunities are availed to them. Niagara's tourist economy reminds me about the feudal system as I learned about it when I first studied law and the history of real estate and property rights. There are the Owners, those who own those lovely hotels, tourist attractions and cinemas and so forth ... There are the Managers (or the Landlords), Petite Bourgeoisie, those that own the largest farms and wineries, as well as a few smatterings of those among the Merchant class. Finally, there are the workers ... most of those who work for the Owners, Petite Bourgeoisie or the Merchant class are almost always low-waged and seasonal labourers.

Another industry that is designated along class lines is the Auto Industry, which is a weakening, though still present concern in this Region. There are the Owners/ General Managers, the Union Workers and those who are unable to even set a foot in the door because all the jobs have been long since hogged by the Union Workers and members of their families. The latter group are often shunted off to work for places like call centres, large retailers (such as Wal-Mart) or Tim Horton's. Niagara's fathers want to keep the Auto Sector moving, even though its presence appears to be declining. However, the force among the Auto Industry is not missed by even the least observant person. Whole lots are being ripped apart and flattened out throughout the Region to do one of two things: (a) Create parking lots; or (b) Create more automobile sales firms. After all, we need to create an outlet for the Union Workers, Petite Bourgeoisie, Merchants and the Owners to purchase new cars year over year, don't we? It is this class of people that are probably the only people that can afford to purchase them anyways.

If you are somebody in Niagara that is not an Owner, General Manager, Union Worker, Petite Bourgeoisie or a Merchant, or married to one, you are likely not likely going to become one of them. Why? Because Niagara Region, as well as many regions of similar size and scope, accepts a very rigid class structure that is based upon membership to the above groups, or association with the same (such as through marriage) - but if you are NOT - if you are one of the one in five people in the Region who are considered poor, your chances of EVER climbing that supposed ladder to the next level are nil and none. It's the Family Compact or nothing in Niagara.

The fact of the matter is that job hogsmanship is very much of a reality here in Niagara. If somebody is a Teacher, for example, they are most likely married to an Owner, General Manager, Union Worker, Petite Bourgeoisie or a Merchant. They are less likely to come from single income families. These are the people that will have the vast majority of pension funds available to them upon retirement. These are the people who think nothing of taking a drive and going to a cottage somewhere north of Toronto most weekends in the summer. They usually have a backyard pool and their children are the first to get the best "summer jobs" the system has to offer them because these families have the contacts.

Unfortunately, these are also the very same people who are part of the new movement to "simplify things", "become green" and "give to the poor" (usually meaning African poor and not local poverty). They try to imagine or make the rest of us imagine that life can only be simpler if we all had our own little gardens and grew our own vegetables, cooked everything from scratch and cut coupons. These are all good ideas, but the one in five people I spoke of earlier are not: (a) likely to have a yard, let alone room to put in a garden; (b) have the time to play in the dirt to develop one even if they had a yard (e.g. most are working two or three minimum wage jobs just to pay the rent and feed the kids); (c) have the time or energy to cook from scratch; and (d) most do not have a vehicle in which to travel from one end of town to the other to "catch" various specials and use different coupons to save a dollar or two on the price of milk. Poverty is indeed expensive.

Poor people do not have the money to start and maintain a garden. They do not have the transportation to pick up the essentials for a garden, nor do they have the capacity to even retrieve free or low-cost items others may have for sale or give-away on the Internet or through the newspaper. Poor families in Niagara that do not have a car stay poor, regardless of how well educated and skilled they are. Employers do not want anybody who does not share the values and lifestyles of the Owners, General Managers, Union Workers, Petite Bourgeoisie or Merchants. Employers cannot relate to people who do not have an easy pick-up-and-go type of the lifestyle that they enjoy. People want to hire other people who are just like they are.

The expression "keeping up with the Joneses" has been around for a long time. People who have money have the means to compete with other people with money. People who are poor watch this happen and only feel left out of the game. The Joneses do not know that poor folks exist in Niagara, even though the Joneses may once in a blue moon drop off a non-perishable food item to the Food Bank or hand over a quarter to the occasional panhandler, but nobody in the Jones family or those who try to keep up with them have ever bothered to ask why there is so much poverty in Niagara Region, or if they do, why it is okay for the poor to accept their crumbs and not share the same opportunities for upward mobility that they have. People who are dual income earners tend to believe other adults come from the same background. I've met teachers that assume all parents can afford to send their kids to various field trips and pizza days. When they don't, the fault of course rests with parents or with the child who may not be "responsible enough" to bring in the required money for these things. Unfortunately, while our Board of Education pretends to respect all students equally, they in fact, do not. They expect low-income parents to beg for financial assistance from the schools in order for their children to be treated equally ... thus requiring these parents to give a type of personal disclosure that is not expected of other parents. They do not think for a minute that such disclosure only labels them as "damaged goods" and serves as a barrier for people to succeed in the community on their own merits. Receipt of "charity" is not as confidential as you think. People who accept "charity" are not the same people who get hired for the good jobs.

There are probably more cars per capita here in Niagara Region than anywhere else. There is absolutely nothing policy-wise or environmentally that is being done to curb the use of private vehicles. Niagara Region has a substantial amount of gridlock on most of its roadways, as well as highways. The Niagara Region is the only incorporated Region that does not support ANY inter-municipal transit. Why, do you ask? Because the leaders of this Region actually believe that EVERYBODY drives. If you don't, they assume there is something wrong with you. If you complain about discrimination in jobs, they say jobs are plentiful in call centres, cleaning hotels, picking fruit and doing other menial tasks, regardless of your education or career aspirations. Yet in the same breath, these same people complain about the lack of population growth and the fact that young college and university graduates LEAVE while they can. People do not use transit in Niagara unless they are: (a) one of the one in five people who are poor and marked for life; (b) mentally challenged (because we don't expect developmentally delayed adults to drive cars, do we?); (c) frail seniors (usually in their 70's and 80's); and (d) students, who are usually landlocked by student loans and cannot afford to keep up with the Joneses right now (though many of them come from these same types of middle income families from elsewhere that will eventually get them set for life). Unfortunately, this is a stigma that is carried over to employers and others in the Region, which has only further castrated our population into solid social classes and cultural division.

The reality that society has to face is clear. Not everybody has family support. I can count the number of my hundreds of clients I worked with over the years who are on social assistance or some other financial support who have families assisting them on my left hand. While this is true, governments continue to focus only on those people on my left hand who have families who are (a) available; (b) able; and (c) willing to provide financial support to their disabled relatives. There are whole workshops dedicated to issues like the Henson Trust, Registered Education Savings Plans, Registered Disability Support Plans, Segregated Funds, etc. To the vast majority of my people, these things mean absolutely nothing. It does not apply to their reality - because their loved ones may be dead, fragile themselves or they simply turned their backs on them years ago when the going got tough. Many of these people never settled into their first jobs and they are now in their 30's and 40's. Some have never driven a car. This is not going to happen for them without concerted and ongoing efforts on the part of government and community support organizations to get their heads out of the sand, to stop trying to keep up with the Joneses (as in my view, the Joneses do not need any more government help than they already get - which they do in fact get) and walk a mile in the shoes of my clients. We need to return the learning curve to normalization and integration, as opposed to marginalization and segregation, which is what we are doing so wrong today.

My clients want exactly the same thing everybody else wants:

1. They want to live in a home that is clean, safe and secure (e.g. poor people do not *need* staff to babysit them or tell them how to spend their money);

2. They want enough money to allow them to make a reasonable number of choices with respect to their lives (e.g. housing, food, transportation, telephone, entertainment, and support services that they choose). If they make mistakes, they want the right to accept the consequences and move on;

3. They want the right to continue their education, receive additional training and skills and have them count for something (instead of being blithely turned away from every job opportunity because they don't already have their own vehicles, know somebody who already works for the employer or belongs to the union already);

4. They want the right to access employment opportunities that reflect their actual skills, education, training and work experience, as opposed to low-wage ghettos they usually get referred to;

5. If they cannot work at all or are limited in their capabilities in working, they want to ensure that they have an income that can be counted on to cover ALL of their costs of living a reasonable lifestyle; and

6. They want the right to retire at some point in their lives without having to accept a McJob to subsidize the pithy government pensions they will be expected to live on.

These are things that folks with two incomes, two cars and an obsession with keeping up with the Joneses do not understand. They do not understand there are people who will not get to retire at all due to the declining value of public pensions (which do not keep up with the actual cost of living) or get to choose where they live, who their friends are or where they work. These are people who are quite often bullied at work, but say nothing about it because they know the only alternative is living on the streets, which is something apparently enshrined somewhere in Ontario Works legislation - that people in receipt of it should be pleased to even have a home, even if it is a garbage dumpster or a homeless shelter.

But most of all, this group does NOT understand that the reason that they are able to do so well is because so many others are not. Many middle, upper-middle and upper class families have the poor to thank for their positions, because if they had to pay their employees decent wages, pay the kind of taxes they really should be paying, or to cover the full cost of their consumption habits (like the poor seem to be expected to do) - they would not be able to keep up with the Joneses, or perhaps there may not even be any Joneses to keep up with. Other middle class folks, by virtue of their jobs, rely upon the existence of poor people to keep them in business. They certainly don't want to see poverty eradicated. As one of my readers, this should be easy for you to understand by now how one is ethically tied to fighting for one's own elimination if you happen to be one of those people who work to "serve" the poor.

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