Tell Me Their Names

by Glen

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MOVING INTO OUR 29th YEAR AS A FOOD BANK, WE ARE learning again that the poor just aren’t who we think they are – at times not even close. There have been those traditional ways of gauging poverty where governments establish income levels and project things from there in more or less absolute terms. All this is necessary for public policy reasons, but are blunt instruments when it comes to telling us what poverty is all about today.

What’s important for us to get our heads around is that, regardless of how you define the poverty line, by most measures poverty has been getting worse in Canada over the last two decades. In such a case, there’s little point in belabouring the definitions of poverty when its dynamic has become extremely troubling.

It’s time to accept that poverty itself isn’t some statistic but a state of being. The moment we attempt to define poverty we have already narrowed it too much; the key is to understand it, and for that we have to broaden our view. When poverty becomes a stat, it immediately becomes something outside of us, but the moment it is seen as a neighbour or family member, or perhaps potentially ourselves, it draws us in and confronts us with its complex challenges.

Poverty isn’t merely a financial reality but a community problem simply because it now involves so many people from all walks of life. To say someone is “poor” these days could actually mean almost poor, could be poor, really poor, temporarily poor, or sadly, the permanently poor. Poverty has filtered out into mainstream society in ways that redefine what being a community really means.

They aren’t people hiding in some kind of chart or economic projection, but are living in homes or apartments, perhaps even on the streets. They are from every ethnic background and from all quadrants of the city. The vast majority are hardly idle, but spend their days busier than the rest of us, searching for ways in which to help them survive in an increasingly oblivious world.

It’s helpful for us if we can to understand that those living in such situations are rapidly on their way to becoming a “class” – the ability to escape their constrained predicament is quickly becoming more limited. Many work but in minimum-waged jobs, a large portion of their monthly income going towards paying the rent. Their presence in Canada and in our communities is becoming fixed – they know it and we know it. The question is, will we accept it or seek to work together to do something about it? Should we do little, their individual self-esteem sinks ever lower, while our collective self-esteem as a nation begins to carry with it a troubling tinge of shame. The longer we wait, the more sure the prospect that we become an entrenched two-tier nation. We will then become the country that used to lead the world, the nation that somewhere along the line lost its imagination and drive for social justice.

Following decades of economic management where we have gone from a market economy to a market society, as Mark Carney put it, it turns out that capitalism not only made people rich and content, but also poor, hungry, powerless and miserable. It’s a rude awakening and a sobering challenge for a dysfunctional capitalism and a troubled society.  And, sadly, it has separated us from one another.  Or as TV commentator Stephen Colbert recently put it: “You say you care about the poor?  Tell me their names.”