Monday, November 10, 2008


One of my areas of expertise is ethics and knowledge-based analysis. One of my earlier projects (almost eighteen years ago) focused on the underpinning values that eventually erupted into the Holocaust. If you ask people today what led to the Holocaust, people will argue it was Hitler's rise to power. However, my project's research has shown the underpinnings of society's value system at the time resulted in Hitler's rise to power, as opposed to the other way around.

Society's values, often reflected in so-called scientific 'achievements' and measures to back them up, were used to assign values, as opposed to determine hypothesis. The fact so-called western culture has evolved through many cultural and counter-cultural periods can aid in one's understanding of how such values and beliefs determine how the society will address its problems. Instead of being viewed as challenges, such 'problems' were defined as societal nuisances, tragedies and other negative values assigned, and the instruments of science and policy were utilized to eradicate, as opposed to accommodate, such challenges.

I don't want to go into great detail as to how the social psychological theorum developed around these ideas, the founding of eugenic-based thinking and its gradual acceptance and implementation took place, but to demonstrate how the same social psychology and its structure exist in our society today and how it is impacting on our most vulnerable populations. As one speaker series I attended recently demonstrated, how society "defines" its problems and their "causes" results in what policy instruments are used to tackle them.

This particular speaker was part of our International Day to Eradicate Poverty forum held at the region. The interesting aspect of this speaker's discussion was something I always knew to be true. She simplified this scenario in how people view the economy and as a result, what solutions are available for reducing poverty in society. She separated her presentation in three parts.

The first part demonstrated a belief that our economy provides equal access to opportunities for everybody and anybody can achieve what they want by tackling their challenges and "working hard". The corollary to this thinking of course means that those that do not find success in the existing economy are not "trying hard enough" or are "not taking advantage of opportunities afforded to them". Policy solutions imposed by this thinking relate to creating "incentives" for people to work and get off social assistance, for example. The idea here is that if we prod people hard enough, they will pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Assistance should be minimal, temporary and difficult to get, or such thinking would go, "it becomes a system that can be abused".

The second part showed a different scenario whereas one believes that usually the economy works well, but there are periodic issues that need to be addressed. One such issue could be the current banking crisis and upcoming global recession. Thinkers in this category believe that the economy is not a structural barrier in itself, but periodic shifts and changes make it necessary to develop policies to assist affected individuals in "adjusting". Policy initiatives brought about by this manner of thinking tend to focus on strengthening the individual through re-training programs, labour adjustment opportunities, job finding clubs and resume upgrades. If people learn how to find work and upgrade their skills for the "new market", everything will be fine.

The third part showed even a more different perspective. The belief system here demonstrates that opportunity is not shared equally among all people in society and that some people benefit more from the status quo than others for a variety of reasons and regardless of how "good" the economy is, there are always people who are left behind. The thinking here is that the people left behind are not at fault, but do deserve not to be left behind ... so the solution to this scenario is more structural, as opposed to individual or laissez-faire. Policy options would include infrastructure projects, improved urban planning, consideration of a minimum citizen's income, as well as support for broad-based community services, such as education, health care, daycare, transit, etc.

The reason I bring up these scenarios and am reminded of this presentation is from a recent article published in the Toronto Star about how today's welfare rates are probably set for 1988 levels. The article exemplifies a young man that had once experienced the "Canadian dream" of a middle-class job, a successful business and a happy marriage, only to see it ruined by addiction ... and several years later, he is clean, but unemployed and living in poverty. With these feature articles, the Star has a comments section where any reader can contribute their thoughts. Almost 200 comments were printed, many of them exposing the vicious prejudices of the writers, beliefs they held about poor people, why they were poor and they would only solve their problems if they just "got a job". It is interesting if life were that simple.

Readers in this category pointed out how there are so many 'help wanted' ads in store windows, how one can easily get a minimum wage job and so forth ... well, these readers would love to see a law passed to force people who are not working to take a job, any job. However, would these same readers be willing to have the same law applied to employers, to force them to hire whoever showed up at their door - regardless of their skills, training and aptitude? Of course not! If this were ever imposed, there'd be a civil war of sorts started by the business and employer community about the state's will being imposed on their businesses. The reason I ask this is because very few people on social assistance want to be there; survey after survey shows that almost everybody wants to work, but most that don't work experience major barriers to doing so.

So, until these barriers are removed, we have to do something about people that are unable to find work or perhaps, either temporarily or permanently, are unable to work ... some argue we should just let them starve. Surely, if we do so, they will suddenly find it in their "interests" to take any job. Right? Sadly, this will not likely work. Would you want to live next door to one of these people, who perhaps you believe should "starve" who through no fault of their own is having trouble securing a job? You better lock your doors! How about your taxes? You think your taxes are high now? Just wait until our medicare system takes in these "starving people" for malnutrition, self-harm, exposure, addictions, fatigue, infections, etc. Or our local jails take them in for petty theft, vandalism, causing a disturbance, assault, etc.

A shocking statistic shows that 75% of people in our prisons are illiterate and more than 80% of them come from low-income backgrounds. Natives and visible minorities are disproportionately represented in prisons. A study overlaying Toronto's 13 poorest postal codes with the residential locations of the shooters during the notorious Summer of the Gun showed almost all of them came from poor and desperate neighbourhoods. I don't even need to tell you how much it costs on an annual basis to keep each of these people in prison, particularly now that there is a public appetite to keep people locked up longer.

While we expect a percentage of prisoners to leave our prisons eventually to live in the community, none of us wants them in "our neighbourhoods" or in "our schools". A prison record almost guarantees lifelong unemployment and thus, the vicious cycle returns with greater force the next time around, which may expand the seriousness of the crime and increase the take. Life becomes cheap when your own life is not valued by the society you are living in. These people simply will not go away, despite the simplistic answers of many of the people who signed their comments in the Toronto Star that day. It is interesting that such comments could be registered anonymously or under a pseudonym, which certainly allows one to distance oneself from their comments and not have to take personal responsibility for saying them.

It is hard to say what the solution is for resolving issues like entrenched poverty, but it definitely revolves much broader than around the individual. If you expect somebody to "take a job", the employment market must be ready and prepared to hire that person. If employers do not want to hire that person, then employers (and other that don't want "those" people around) should pay more taxes to support the person until they are able to find work.

For individuals with disabilities, employers must be proactive in identifying and removing barriers to persons with disabilities. This must be done by reviewing all steps of the engagement process, starting out with the development of the job description or what the position would involve. Then, the next step would be to ensure that persons with disabilities have access to information about the job and the means to apply. People with disabilities will apply for jobs they feel they are qualified to do, as in the case of anybody else.

Employers like other people hold certain prejudices about people with disabilities, which need to be overcome in order for them to facilitate the participation in the paid labour force of more disabled persons. Hiring persons with disabilities helps all of us, not just the person with the disability. The employer has somebody to fill their position; the person with the disability has a job; and taxpayers no longer support the person with the disability by paying out their pittance of a disability income. It is also likely that the person with the disability will enjoy greater health and on an aggregate level, with more people hired, there will be more money in the economy spent on small businesses, which in turn, leads to the creation of other jobs.

Unfortunately, myths continue to prevail about people with disabilities. It is assumed that people with disabilities do not have as many qualifications as other workers. Many people with disabilities have advanced education and professional credentials, as well as substantial work experience. Further, there is no evidence that the work ethic of the person with a disability is any less than it is for anybody else. Their performance is either equal to or exceeds others as a rule. Further, some employer believe that people with disabilities should get paid less because they receive ODSP, which they assume is a "subsidy" ... when in fact, most people seeking work while on it, want to get OFF ODSP. Paying people less than minimum wage or even less than other workers is not only illegal, but is counter-productive as well.

This is just one area where there is shared responsibility for poverty reduction. Of course, there are people that cannot work due to health issues, or caregiving issues, or other reasons. Society needs to re-examine its current beliefs about the need to "punish" these people for being unable to contribute for either a temporary or permanent period of time to the paid labour force. Ontario Works is now the assistance of "first resort" for most people, as other forms of benefits get cut back and more difficult to get ... and as a result of getting on Ontario Works, one unfortunately has to strip themselves of all assets and virtually lose any financial cushion they once had, leaving them very vulnerable to long-term reliance on assistance.

Maybe we should take a look at the other benefits that are being cut and should be easier to get? It is said that less than 35% of people in Ontario who are unemployed could access Employment Insurance. People in receipt of long term disability insurance or worker's compensation are vulnerable to setbacks in adjudication cycles, which often can leave workers cut off with no financial security at all. Insurers suddenly decide your two years are up and you should be able to return to work, or WSIB believes your employer's "modified work" is truly adaptable for you (even though you will be essentially doing the same job you did that you got injured in). Forcing all of these people onto Ontario Works, which does not cover one's basic shelter, let alone their basic living costs, is certainly not good for the economy.

Is it really that good to have these people not shopping in your store, ordering a coffee in your cafe, or not buying clothing from the local merchant downtown, and more and more people ending up in this position? What does this do to the likelihood of jobs being created in your community? What does this do to the health of your local businesses, ranging from the butcher shop to the dry cleaner to the movie house? What about people who can no longer afford to stay in their homes? Where do they go?

Simplistic policy solutions do very little to either: (a) get people involved in the labour force; or (b) get the economy moving. Perhaps, we may need to re-think our ideas before spouting them off on the web, thinking we have all the answers. These issues are way more complex than they usually appear and solutions can only start when we end the blame game.


No comments: