Ever heard of Fishtown?  Charles Murray, author of “The Bell Curve,” has been arguing for as long as people would listen that poverty involves much more than just an economic predicament.  The longer people are trapped in it, he reasons, the more poverty drains the moral and ethical depths of modern society.  He believes it all started in the 1960s, when fundamental trusts – self-restraint, family, personal responsibility, faith, politics and country – began to be undermined.  The result has been a kind of social deterioration that situates people living in poverty beyond the normal restraints of low-income and in depleted communities that no longer have the resolve to deal with such situations in the complex manner they deserve.  Just providing even a basic income for such families might not provide the effect for which policy makers would hope.

To illustrate our modern predicament, Murray came up with the fictional community called Fishtown and laid out what he believed was transpiring in normal communities across North America.

Now let us return to the relationship of Fishtown’s decline with America’s civic culture.  The decline of industriousness among Fishtown males strikes at the heart of the signature of civic culture – the spirit of enterprise, stick-to-it-iveness, and hard work to make a better life for oneself and one’s children.  The divergence in marriage and the rise of single-parent homes has cascading effects.  The webs of civic engagement in an ordinary community are spun largely by parents who are trying to foster the right environment for their children – lobbying the city council to install four-way stop signs at an intersection where children play, coaching the Little League teams, using the P.T.A. to improve the neighbourhood school.  For that matter, many of the broader political issues in a town or small city are fought out because of their direct and indirect effects on the environment for raising children.  Married fathers are a good source of labour for these tasks.  Unmarried fathers are not.  Nor can the void be filled by the moms.  Single mothers who want to foster the right environment for their children are usually doing double duty already, trying to be the breadwinner and an attentive parent at the same time.  Few single mothers have much or energy to spare for community activities.”

In other words, the devastating effects of unemployment and poverty leave a troubling legacy on citizens, especially mothers, and males who have been used to being contributors to community life.

Culture is a fluid thing.  Provide the kind of stability that good public policy can enhance, such as in the decades following the Second World War, and culture can have a profound effect just because of its longevity.  But the topsy-turvy world of our recent political and economic sectors has witnessed a slow undermining of institutions and practices that once were essential to establishing better futures for our children.  It is one thing to endure a season of poverty due to occasional recessions, but the gradual expansion of the low-income class in our country begins to have effect on the world we are presently building.  If sustained poverty is no longer a moral travesty to be solved but becomes, instead, an abiding and growing reality in our communities that we learn to accept, then the very essence of what we once believed about society quickly becomes negotiable and expendable.

Poverty shapes the minds of the people entrapped in it in ways that we are only now becoming more cognizant of.  New research suggests that ongoing poverty imposes a kind of tax on the brain.  So much time is spent wrestling with poverty’s realities – scarce resources, poor health, lack of nutritious foodstuffs, the ever wrestling between income and expenses – that those in poverty have little left with which to concentrate on the positives, like education, community, legacy, parenting, or employment.

Worse, scientists now believe that such drains on the brain build over time.  If a child is reared in poverty, those experiences will linger into their adulthood.  Research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reveals that those who grow up poor developed impaired brain function as adults.  They experienced greater difficulty in managing their emotions or in balancing the numerous demands on time and resources.  Regardless of what their income status was at the age of 24, all those years in poverty left lasting consequences in adaptability and progress. 

Considered as a whole, the research implies that sustained poverty continually taxes the brain of the adults to such a degree that truly caring for their children becomes exceedingly difficult.  The researchers termed this “trajectories” of those experiencing poverty over lengthy periods of time. 

As long as any modern society permits sustained periods of poverty immersion, it will have to come to terms with the troubling reality that the fruits of such tolerance will carry over for generations.  The greatest problem regarding the growth in poverty in Canadian society is not so much its presence, but its permanence.  No simplistic answer will do.  The only effective solution will involve complex societal, economic, political, ethical, and employment interventions set within the context of a society that will no longer accept a form of poverty that becomes sustained.  If, as many suggest, we are the smartest generation in history, surely we can build consensus and utilize the tools to accomplish it.