In the past few weeks, the news was filled with tragedy, ranging from a massive flood in parts of Alberta, the bombing of the Boston Marathon, a train wreck of a freight train carrying oil through a small Quebec village and the death of more than a dozen fire fighters fighting a fire in Arizona. With the news coverage, the public is presented with both heroes and villains, while both government and members of the community come together to provide whatever support the "innocent" victims of these tragedies need and deserve. Some of these tragedies are natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, while others are sparked by human error like the derailment of an oil freight train in Lac Megantic, Quebec. In any case, people are all around, while governments promise and deliver financial relief to individuals and families finding themselves in the thick of whatever happened. Thousands of families returned to their homes in Calgary, Alberta, to find they had to demolish their homes or they lost everything they had, while there is community support to bring these families back to at least a stable position once again. There is nothing wrong with lending a helping hand in these circumstances, or governments stepping in to provide aid when necessary, and for these circumstances, the public does not view this as a charitable act, but as a form of natural justice.
I wish Canadians and our respective governments would take the same approach to eliminating poverty in our country, which is otherwise blessed with wealth, resources and an abundance of talent. In the above scenarios depicted, most members of the public view these tragedies as being nobody's fault, or perhaps, being someone's fault, but not necessarily to the point of finger pointing or placing blame. Certainly, those who are directly suffering the effects of these tragedies are not being blamed for their circumstances and people all around want to ensure they are returned to a position of dignity. At the same time, our citizens and government still don't get the dignity part of this equation when it comes to eliminating poverty. We still want to blame the person who is poor for their circumstances, like they somehow brought it on themselves. It is as if these people woke up one day deciding they were going to get sick and unable to work, or they were going to find themselves at the other end of a layoff when the company they worked at for thirty years slams its door shut on them, or they decide to marry somebody who is later found to be an abusive alcoholic and in order to get out of the situation, they must turn to welfare.
First, before we try to understand our hegemonic concepts of what creates poverty and what solves it, we need to discuss issues of dominant theory and privilege. People have varying levels of privilege in our society, even though many people with privilege within the dominant culture are not always aware of how privileged they really are. I wrote in this column in the past about how people who have both their driver's licenses and access to their own reliable transportation tend to take this for granted, especially in a region like our own. They plan their days around their automobile, what routes they will take to their job or to their daily activities, and if they need to do anything else afterwards. Drivers usually have a pretty good idea how long it is going to take them to get to different places and usually know to allow more time in bad weather, or if they are going somewhere at a time there are likely thousands of others like them using the same roads they will be on, such as taking a trip to Toronto starting out at 8:00 a.m. here and holding out false hope they will get there by 9:30 a.m. That is why many commuters going there start their drive about 7:00 a.m., as they will more likely get there on time. The thought of leaving one's job and picking up their son after hockey, and then purchasing a few groceries on the way home is a minor detail for most people. However, take that car away, and the driver quickly finds out that their trip to work may or may not be accommodated by a bus, so a $30 taxi ride might be necessary each way. They would not likely be able to pick up their son from hockey or make a stop over for groceries on the way back, unless they want to pay additional taxi fare. They plan the groceries for a day they do not have to go anywhere else. As a consequence, the former driver realizes they have little time for their family, little time for themselves and much of their time is spent planning how to get places and when to go there. That is just one example of how privilege is instilled in people; how people in a position of privilege don't often realize how advantaged they are until that advantage is somehow taken away from them.
In our community, most people seem to believe in charity and goodwill towards others. People believe in these things because they naturally feel a need to "give back" to the community. We are socialized to believe that we all come from some type of privilege and how important it is to "help the less fortunate". There is nothing wrong with that. I do not object to the motive; I object to the method. The method of "giving back" to the so-called "less fortunate" is riddled with hegemonic ideas that are created by this same privilege and in many ways, serves to protect the privilege that people feel they have, as opposed to bringing the so-called "less fortunate" into a position of equal privilege themselves. We give to food banks because we feel we need to feed the hungry, but rarely do we hear from the hungry about what they need. We volunteer at nursing homes to keep an elder companionship, but rarely do we ask if there is a better environment this person could be in. We support the development of "affordable" and "subsidized" housing because we believe that nobody should have to sacrifice their basic necessities for the high price of shelter, but we don't ask what residents of social housing really aspire to become. We continue to donate to "charity" because we believe they are a "good cause" and in many cases, they are, but more and more, we are discovering that not all charities are equally effective at achieving their goals. While there seems to be a growing awareness of members of the donating public about how monies are being spent in a charity, as well as how much is being used to advance the reason for that charity's existence, we have not yet come around to ask the real questions that need to be asked. These questions surround the issue of what the charity is actually doing and if they are actually achieving anything for those they purport to serve.
I know these kinds of questions. My husband lost his mother last year to a rare form of cancer. For many months prior to her death and seemingly eternally after her death, he ranted on about how "billions" of dollars are being donated and/or granted to cancer research and cancer organizations, but there never seems to be a cure. We continue to see people die from the disease. One begins to become cynical, wondering if there really was a cure out there, how many of these people that currently work for these organizations or partake in this research and so forth would lose their jobs. It creates an industry of its own. "Cancer Can Be Beaten" is a mantra that was played over and over in my day, while today, we continue to have the same amount of cancer, but the Cancer Society appears to be replacing its mantra with other phrases, while millions more of us continue to die of the disease. The same applies to diabetes, a disease I suffer from and relentlessly curse because of bad genetics, poor health and disadvantage in my day, but to no surprise, there is also a significant diabetes industry out there. Many organizations "benefit" per se with the alleged tsunami of diabetes hitting our communities. There are organizations to educate people with diabetes, dieticians to set up meal plans for people with diabetes, doctors to prescribe and treat people with diabetes, clinics to test and assess the progress of diabetic treatment in individuals (e.g. A1C tests), charities to raise funds to provide support and find a "cure" for diabetes, as well as bemoan the world over with apocalyptic thinking how ten percent of our population will soon be afflicted. There is talk of a cure, improved medications, improved forms of insulin management, and greater knowledge, but no cure again for this disease!
This brings me back to the concept of both industry and privilege and how it deals with the concept of eliminating poverty. People who are not poor are the ones that are currently setting up and benefiting from programs and services that are supposed to "help" the poor. There are services of all kinds delivered to poor people, from food banks, soup kitchens, budgeting classes, housing agencies, counselling services, drop in centres, homeless shelters, street workers, etc., but no program in sight to help the poor become NOT poor anymore. For most poor people, what is needed is more money. Instead of spending "billions" of dollars, as my husband describes, on more "services" to make poverty more comfortable for the poor, perhaps these "billions" can instead be given to the poor people themselves and let THEM decide how to spend it. This is not only a scary thought for those who work in and are in particular, paid to provide "services" to, the poor -- it is seen as politically untenable. Yet when a city experiences a major flood, a small village in Quebec is struck with an exploding freight train, or the country of Haiti is struck with a god-awful earthquake, there is NO LIMIT to the amount of money and resources people think should be spent to get these people out of their straitened circumstances. After all, they are there by no fault of their own. I wish we would think the same way about the poor here in Canada.
As I said, nobody woke up one day to decide they were going to have a horrible accident at work that would leave them disabled and unemployed. Nobody woke up to plan their spouse on leaving them, trading them in for a new model. Nobody woke up to decide to become ill enough to make finding and keeping a job difficult, if not impossible. Nobody when asked what they want to be when they grow up, chooses "welfare" to be the career they want to have. These things happen. Programs like Worker's Compensation, Social Assistance, Old Age Security, Unemployment Insurance and Medicare, were created for a reason. Unfortunately, too many people are buying into the idea that only if people relied more on their neighbours, their families, their communities, to support them through rough patches, and then there would be no need for welfare, worker's compensation, minimum wages, and so on. Well, think again. We were in this position before, and if it worked so well, why is this not still the case? Perhaps, there was a time when capitalism began to show its cracks and we learned of its imperfections, which are leaving many people behind, either intentionally or unintentionally. As our recessions become deeper and longer, the only solution big business has to offer is to cut back further on these "entitlement" programs, so that people will have less "incentive" to use them and just get a job. Oh, if it was only that easy. I always ask those that make these assumptions if they know where they are hiring the thousands of people that seem to have chosen day after day recently to be unemployed and dependent on the pittance they get from welfare or unemployment insurance.
Niagara Region was recently determined by the Adzuna Group to be the worst place in Canada to find a job if you are unemployed, whereby there are allegedly 100 job seekers for every job vacancy. In the current way of thinking, the other 99 people simply chose to remain on social assistance because that lifestyle is so easy. The answer they give us to cut these programs even further. I have yet to see how this helps. Perhaps, if we withheld any aid to those people in Lac Megantic or to those flooded out in Calgary, perhaps these people will just learn to save their money for rainy days for now on and not live so close to the damn train tracks, right? The pre-historic thinking that surrounds the elimination of poverty needs to be eliminated as well. We need to fight poverty as hard as we fight to bring people involved in the above referred tragedies back to their normal lives to the best of our abilities.
We have to stop thinking about food banks and shelters and so forth as being the answer, but instead try to understand how continuing and perpetuating these sorts of programs keeps poverty intact and helps no one. Feeding somebody today is fine, but the same person will be hungry again tomorrow. What are we going to do about this? Are we going to continue to erode the dignity and prosperity of an increasing portion of our population by dividing our communities into donors/heroes and recipients of charity/helpless beings? Or are we going to recognize that the dominant culture that we live in is as much at fault as the economy at keeping this segment of the population down. Or is it that we fear that if we empower those we serve with the same privileges and rights to participate in the community that you and I have taken for granted will somehow take something away from you? Food banks didn't grow out of nature; they were invented in 1981 in the city of Edmonton. Since that time, this concept has grown and become institutionalized, whereby way too damn many of us have become smug and feel we are doing our part by donating to food banks, even partaking in food drives, thinking we are doing anything for those in need, when in fact, we still have not yet asked those in need what they really want to do with their lives, have we?
There is an important element of dignity at play here, which is something that we all need to keep in mind. We also like to believe that to continue to do what we do will continue to distance the poor and their problems from our own lives, to keep us in the privileged positions that we might someday be aware that we are in, but even this does nothing of the sort. We need to take steps to the elimination of poverty, put the responsibility for this situation at the feet of those that can do something about it and despite their pleadings to the contrary, can damn well afford it too. That is, business needs to start creating jobs that pay well and investing in our communities. Governments needs to stop paying businesses not to hire and not to invest, while tax breaks after unconditional tax breaks keep getting handed to them year over year, while it is so clear that there is a growing gap in wealth, the middle class is bleeding and that damned Emperor is walking down Bay Street buck naked! Let's start asking the questions of ourselves and demand answers. Let's stop assuming that hunger is "being dealt with" and that a massive restructuring of our society and our thinking is in order, in order for not only for us to maintain our position, but to keep the rest of us from falling further into despair and desperation at the hands of the one percent minority that none of us want to have control us.