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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tackling poverty

“Poverty is the great social issue of our time. The poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame. No nation can achieve true greatness if it lacks the courage and determination to undertake the surgery necessary to remove the cancer of poverty from its body politic.”
Senator David Croll, Senate Committee on Poverty,1971.

On Tuesday, I attended a presentation by Senator Art Eggleton held at the Wolf Performance Hall in the Central Library. Since the topic was dealing with poverty, I was not surprised to see that most of the people present were church and community activists as well as members of the helping professions. 

I may have missed it, but I didn’t see anyone from Council there apart from the Mayor who opened the session and participated in the panel that followed the presentation. That in itself is interesting since the presentation dealt with a report from the Subcommittee on Cities of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. Entitled In from the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, the report received unanimous support in the Senate when it was tabled a year ago. The federal government was less enthusiastic.

In his opening, Mayor Fontana was passionate and unequivocal about the need to eradicate poverty by breaking down silos and adopting a holistic approach. His remarks were compelling
The presentation by the senator, however, was disappointing. Although he gave a solid outline of the report, there was little in it that differed from the lectures I was giving 30 years ago at Fanshawe College. He pointed out the growing inequality in Canada, the fact of little or no progress on poverty reduction, the fact that we are spending more and doing less about poverty. Poverty is costing us about $30B per year in lost productivity, and increased costs in health care and criminal justice, he noted. In fact, the federal government pays out about $150B in transfer payments without really having made a dent in poverty.

The current system of social programs, he said, simply maintains people in poverty and serves to entrap them in that poverty.

The 291 page report, which was initially released a little over a year ago, contains 74 recommendations in the areas of employment, education, health, housing and minority groups. Based on my cursory perusal, I wouldn't take issue with any of them but it seems to me that most simply seek to tweak current programs.

What is lacking is a clear message that will resonate with the public. A campaign slogan, if you will.

Forty years ago there was all-party support in the House of Commons for a guaranteed annual income. It didn't happen. This report contains the recommendation to “further examine a basic annual income based on a negative income tax.” Not exactly a sound bite to generate public enthusiasm.

In the question and answer session after the presentation, some of those in attendance expressed their frustration. The first questioner wanted to know what the point of addressing the converted was.

“Why haven’t you done anything then?” he asked, referring to the lack of progress regardless of which party was in power. That frustration was echoed by other participants.
“It’s a four-letter word,” responded the senator. “Will”.

He pointed out that political will needs to be generated by the grassroots and by those in positions of power, particularly in the business community and in the media.

The session concluded with remarks from MP Glen Pearson whose office had organized the event. His message was blunt. 

Noting that he is known as a nice guy who has run the foodbank for 25 years, Pearson said he had had enough. He was tired of being a nice guy and nothing changing.

Every year he goes to the Sudan. “I have more luck with implementing ant-poverty programs there than right here in Canada,” he pointed out in frustration.

“Our dark days are coming,” he warned. “Things are going to get a lot worse.” Despite the city’s efforts to strengthen its local economy, more layoffs will be coming especially in the public sector. “And this is going to end up on Joe’s (Fontana) table,” because of all the downloading that has occurred.

He ended with a plea to support the implementation of the Senate Report by building local awareness. “I haven’t done so well in Ottawa. Help me to be a better MP. And if I don’t win the next election, help my successor.”

I believe he is absolutely right in his concerns. Too bad some councillors weren’t there to hear it. 

And although the mayor’s heart may be in the right place, I’m not convinced that his economic strategy will cut it.

Unless he plans to put the poor and homeless in warehouses along the 401. 

Here is a link to the full senate report


Anonymous said...

Fontana is on the right path,trying to increase the jobs in London. If the poverty industry stopped looking at the poor as their pets, and started looking at them as humans, who want to work, and want to contribute, things would be different. There is a billion dollar poverty industry going on in this country. I somehow doubt the poverty pimps want to see that come to an end anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that first comment is just insulting. What would you suggest to the thousands of people on ODSP, who live below the poverty level, that are physically or mentally unable to work? Or the thousands of people working full time for minimum wage who still live in poverty. Ask anyone working in your so-called "poverty industry" and they would love to see their positions become unncecessary. To suggest otherwise is to live in ignorance of the realities of poverty.

Menno Meijer said...

There will always be poor. We must cease viewing poverty as an illness. Once we can accept that not everyone can 'elevate' themselves to the median income group and return our focus on enabling people to live secure and productive lives, regardless of income level, we can then find clear solutions to the causes of homelessness and crime.

London once, as a community - a growing city, purchased or otherwise acquired land and built roads and serviced lots. Those lots were made available to citizens to purchase and build upon. Private citizens, who were then able to build a house according to their means and in some cases over time as their resources allowed. Some folk with more resources bought two adjacent lots and build larger homes. They built beside others of lesser means who built more modest homes. The children of the families all went to the same schools and there were shared values.
Today the city enables large companies to acquire vast tracts of real estate to 'develop' who then decide how big the lots will be, how big the pressboard palaces to be built will be, and how much they will cost factoring a huge profit for the heads of the corporation in control. Profit must be made at all stages of the 'development'. Profit from the land, profit from the contractors hired to build and profit from the labour of workers who are sometimes 'illegal' and therefore exploitable. The result is a plot of land with an oversized house, built to standards that ensure profit - not longevity, and neighbourhoods devoid of a centre. The result is a neighbourhood unaffordable to anyone not in the mean-income group. And no option is provided.
With no option we start looking at 'affordable housing projects'. This is just another way to box in citizens of lesser means into communities away from the mean-income group. The result is a divided society.

I have great respect for Mr. Pearson. I too believe there are dark days ahead for the economy. If we want to build the economy in London we have to stop handing over the reigns to developers. London must regain control of its economy by returning to a City-run development process. London must cease its corporate mindset. London is not in business to sell anything so the corporate model simply cannot work. Citizens are not 'clients' of the city. This is the mentality that is creating poverty.
A return to City-run services means jobs for municipal employees. Paid jobs where the employee is paid a fair wage and the same money is returned to the London economy through local purchasing rather than exported to another city or country in the form of massive profits for a single corporation.
Returning the reigns of growth to the City will mean lower income families will once again be able to afford to purchase lots - at cost - and start building their home. This type of home construction, weather jobbed-out to a local carpenter or tackled by the home owner, will spark a growth in the local construction materials sector. London can build its own sound economy by enabling families of lesser means to build affordable homes. Zoning that allows local businesses to open in those communities - hardware stores, grocery stores, barber shops, etc. - can be the return to the neighbourhoods of character that London once enjoyed throughout the city. Everyone loves Wortley Village. We could have many of those 'villages' in London with many jobs and business opportunities created for local entrepreneurs.

Building a home in London does not have to cost $250,000. This is a system designed by the neo-liberal revolution of Mulroney, Thatcher, and Reagan with their apostles like Harris. This group believed in massive corporations bleeding profits out of communities and into the coffers of the rich elite.

London doesn't have to be a player in this game. If the City Council is serious about tackling poverty and homelessness there are options. They cannot be found in the corporate model.