Poverty’s Great Unknown – Facets of Us

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IN SPEAKING FREQUENTLY EACH WEEK, it’s becoming clear that more and more groups are broaching the subject of poverty and what might be done about it. They have become aware that the London Food Bank is attempting to develop a new model in which people can be treated with greater dignity, offered more personal choice, and achieve success at avoiding the problems of “poverty stigmatism.” In an interview yesterday I was asked why the food bank doesn’t just close its doors and get on with the delivering a new way of doing things.

The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: communities are complex organisms and if any change is to prove successful, then citizens, organizations, and food bank users themselves must be brought into the development phase of a new model. Whatever answers emerge from such an exercise will carry the authority of a community sense of ownership as opposed to one group merely deciding on its own.

But there is a second problem, and it effectively impacts the above exercise in confounding and complex ways. I speak of the very stubbornness of poverty itself in this country. Part of our trouble in finding solutions concerns our collective ignorance of the poverty dilemma. Just as a taste of what we are referring to, the next two posts will consider some things most people don’t know about poverty and its presence in our communities.

1) Child poverty in Canada remains far too high, even after two decades of attempts to lower it. According to UNICEF’s recent survey, this country is below average among wealthy nations when it comes to dealing effectively with children in difficult economic situations. The survey highlighted the fact that in Canada 13.3% represents the number of those children in poverty, as opposed to 11% in 35 other advanced economies. Worse still, a full one-half of First Nations children remain mired in poverty. For any food bank this is a significant problem. Slightly under 40% of clients serviced by the London Food Bank are children 17 and under, and their needs won’t be going away until we take their plight seriously.  And that means assisting their parents.

2) The burdens of poverty are different depending on which group we are talking about. Economic stringency doesn’t hit everyone universally the same. People with disabilities face unique challenges compared to, say, someone unemployed. Single parents must take a different approach than two-parent families. Immigrants face an extensive list of challenges. Troublingly, the number of seniors with fixed pensions coming to food banks is increasing. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to poverty and no food bank can underestimate this reality.

3) It’s difficult to get a true measure of poverty, and the termination of Statistics Canada Long Form Census only makes this exploration more difficult. Recently the London Food Bank partnered with the Sisters of St. Joseph, with funding from the London Community Foundation, to inaugurate the London Poverty Research Centre for a specific reason: it remains a very difficult thing to acquire evidence-based statistics on those living in poverty. The Centre, now under the auspices of Kings University College, is seeking to develop a city-wide data base that can be used by all groups and individuals to get something of an accurate assessment on just how deep the constraints of poverty go in our community. You can’t really consider changing your model until your know what you’re up against.

4) Debt is becoming a serious problem. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average Canadian household debt-to-income ratio has climbed to a new high of 163.4%. That means that the average Canadian owes $1.63 (CDN) for every dollar they earn. That’s problematic for most of us, but what about those below the poverty line? Many worked up until just a year or two ago, but now that they are unemployed their personal debt makes getting ahead all the more difficult. And Canadians caught up in such a debt cycle are often resistant to government interventions for the poor that require tax investments.

We can segregate those trapped in poverty all we like, but at some point their numbers increase to a level where we have to acknowledge that the lack of solutions says something about us, not them.  “There is no Them.  There are only facets of Us,” says author John Green.  The fact that we permit the reality of poverty to grow in our midst is merely a sign of our lack of imagination and our desire to leave it for others to solve.  It should be clear now that nothing will transpire until those “facets of Us” that accept the status quo are no longer acceptable to us and that the better angels of our nature can never emerge if we permit the clutches of poverty to claim so many among us.

Tomorrow:Poverty’s Great Unknown (2)