The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: low-income

If You Want to Fix Poverty, Fix the Economy


HE AWOKE FROM A DEEP SLUMBER A couple of weeks ago to the sound of phone ringing incessantly, but when he answered he didn’t mind. Angus Deaton was being informed by someone on the other end of the phone that he was being awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Science. Interestingly, it was how he shed new light on persistent poverty that earned him the credit. Or as the Nobel committee put it:

“To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding.”

Deaton wasn’t so much focused on large market trends as on the average household and how choices are made within it. The Nobel committee has recently honoured a number of academics who have shown through their research that markets are inefficient and that there is great difficulty in knowing what to do about it.  Poverty is beginning to gain traction because of its very unfairness.

For too long now – centuries really – we have placed the blame for being of low-income squarely on the shoulders of the poor themselves. The amount of times we have heard that certain people should just get a job, or stop wasting their money on trivialities, or should go back to school stretches almost to infinity.

But to think that way is to misconstrue what is really happening. Worse, it can bring out some of the worst of subtle prejudices when we blindly believe that people are poor primarily because they are too idle or lack ambition. In reality, it is the way we organize our societies and the way institutions themselves enforce that organizing effect that leads to fewer and fewer opportunities for those in low-income situations.

A huge percentage of the non-working poor have been deemed irrelevant by a market design that increasingly seeks the advantage of productivity without heavy labour costs. People by the thousands are losing their jobs to this trend and yet it remains easier for us to blame the unemployed than it is for us to ask serious questions about the very future of work itself. If capitalism can increasingly get by without people, why, then, do we continue to lay blame on those who have been cast off? No serious researcher can lay claim to the belief that endless possibilities lie before the poor. In-depth data reminds us that people are increasingly constrained because how we construct democracy, promote capitalism, and determine the destination of wealth is, ever increasingly, limiting the opportunities for industrious people to enjoy a more prosperous life.

The secret, of course, is not to change the poor but the systems that create them. Yet it remains easier to blame a person down and out on their luck than it is to confront financial policies, political parties, elite societal structures, or crony capitalism. And, as Angus Deaton recently pointed out in his Nobel prizing winning work, when households themselves make selections that enforce the current financial structure, even average citizens can play a troubling role in enforcing poverty.

The importance of all this is that we could change these realities, but only if we show a willingness to pay for a more equitable society – all of us, including companies. That would require us to develop economic structures that don’t deliberately impoverish those the market deems disposable.

And speaking of the word “disposable,” it is the very lack of disposable income that lies at the root of poverty, not those people who lack it. It was Gandhi who made the troubling observation concerning how the colonial systems resulted in grinding poverty by claiming that, “Poverty is the worst form of violence.” Prejudice is at its worst when we not only wrongfully demean people, but when it refuses to provide them opportunity. Benign bigotry can be just as violent as a clenched fist. An opinion in the lack of evidence is nothing other than prejudice. With all that is up against the marginalized, and the economic systems that keep them in despair, useless accusations is the last thing they need. Fewer things are more frightful than ignorance that leads to inaction.



Tell Me Their Names


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.”

Mayors: Poor Choices


IT’S ALL TOO COMMON FOR CITIES ENDURING DIFFICULT TIMES to resist getting serious about poverty. They place their emphasis on economics, jobs, education, or trade – those aspects that appear more like an investment than a drag on the community like, say, social programs.

But mayors are getting smarter, though it has taken them decades to get around to it. They are comprehending that even a robust economic recovery can be derailed by all those human resources that were left out – unemployed, underemployed, those suffering in mental illness, students, or the homeless. Mayors are paying attention to considerable research showing that the drag on any local economy from sustained poverty could ultimately derail any meaningful recovery or more prosperous future.

As a result, we are now hearing of more robust initiatives from the mayoralty level than we have seen in decades.

  • Last month, the mayors of North Carolina’s largest cities met for a summit on the alarming growth of poverty in the region. In fact, they have organized a series of high-level summits to get their collective head around the problem and deliver results. The hope is to meet quarterly and move from city to city. The session will begin with a meeting with faith leaders from the various cities because of their extensive work in assisting the poor.
  • Mayor Naheed Nenshi of Calgary has called together the city’s best minds, along with those living through real experiences of poverty, to come up with “one big idea” to pull the municipality together in order to eliminate poverty and homelessness.  “The system could be working better,” he says.  “While it’s true that much of this is in the responsibility of the federal and provincial governments, somebody has to take leadership and my office will take on that responsibility.” The challenges will be huge, but he has set two years as the time frame for coming forward with solutions.
  • A few months ago, at the annual U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the “Cities of Opportunity Task Force,” that will bring together mayors from across America to leverage the power of municipal governments to advance a national strategy, led by cities, to fight poverty and create equity. “Poverty is a threat to our fundamental values and an obstacle to the nation’s growth, but it is being lived out in cities and we will be the problem solvers and centers of innovation to find solutions. As mayors, we are on the front lines; it is our responsibility.”
  • This year the city of Edmonton started its own mayor’s task force for similar reasons. It’s comprised of leaders from various sectors. As Edmonton Mayor Don Ivison puts it: “Shifting poverty from charity delivery to practical solutions is what we are fighting for, and we are excited about it.” Ivison had made this a commitment during his election campaign and is as good as his word. Leadership is coming from various levels, but it is his ability to bring the entire community together that has infused the effort with a new sense of hope and commitment.

You can see where this is heading – mayors are stepping up, not with mild or aspirational talk, but with commitment and hard work towards tackling poverty itself. This shouldn’t be of any surprise, because the deepest issues for people struggling on the margins are being lived out hundreds of thousands of times each day in our cities. This will not be solved if mayors don’t seize the opportunity and demonstrate to senior levels of government the human resources that lie in their own respective communities.

As that guru of cities development, Richard Florida, put it recently: “Poverty remains an endemic part of our life, shaping everything from our politics to our health and happiness. Overcoming it requires nothing less than a new set of institutions and a wholly new social compact.”

He might as well have added one thing more – a wholly different breed of mayors to lead the charge. Poverty is not merely a blight on our cities; it is a deep and chronic failure of human imagination and willpower.

Poverty in Canada Has a Woman’s Face

woman misery

FOUR YEARS AGO I ATTENDED AN INTERNATIONAL poverty forum with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.  We had been cooperating on an initiative for helping African girls to stay in school and he was a forceful proponent for equal opportunities in that continent for men and women.

At one point he was asked what would be the one thing that he could do, if he had it in his power, to get rid of African poverty.  It was a big question, but his answer was bigger: “Invest in the women of every African country.”  The silence following that response was deafening because everyone in that room was seasoned in international development and Blair’s solution was almost breathtaking in its simplicity and scope.

It’s easy to talk about poverty among women on other continents – the stats confront of us everyday and are daunting.  When we close our eyes and think about the desperately poor it is inevitable that the image of a woman and her child come to mind.

What image do we envision when we think of the increasing poverty problem in Canada?  I asked four people that question yesterday and nothing particular came to mind.  Somehow we have delinked low-income existences with women and as a result Canadian poverty remains somewhat ethereal to us all.  Consider some of these stats:

  • With the recent economic crisis, some 4.8 millions Canadians are poor.  Of that number
  • 36% of Aboriginal women are mired in poverty
  • 35% of visible minority women are poor
  • 26% of the poor are women with disabilities
  • 21% are single parent mothers (7% of single parent fathers are poor)
  • Of senior single women 14% have fallen into poverty

Canada’s poverty rate ranks us 20th out of 31 OECD countries.  When you consider the data on women in poverty the numbers are even worse.  We continue to hear how Canada came out of the economic downturn better off that other developed nations, but when seen through the lens of women in challenging situations, that’s a bit difficult to accept.  Some intrepid women economists continually remind world leaders that economic inequality between men and women reached it highest points in 1929 and 2007, directly preceding the two worst financial meltdowns in the past 100 years.  When we increasingly get equality wrong, it’s inevitable that we’ll be in a world of hurt as a nation.

Following the London Food Bank’s announcement last week that it was researching closing its doors in order to find better solutions within neighbourhoods where families could get better care, there were numerous responses – most, I’m happy to say, were highly positive.  The fiercest critic was a London woman who has had a good life and who feels it shouldn’t be too much to ask for people to travel across town to the food bank.  She gracefully listened to some key points in return.

  • 80% of all lone parent families are headed by women (over 1 millions families)
  • Single moms have a net worth of roughly $17,000, while for single dads it’s around $80,000
  • The vast majority of children living in poverty are cared for by their mother, so if it’s true that kids who are poor suffer from higher rates of asthma, diabetes, mental health issues, and even heart disease, then it stands to reason that the chief burden bearer of all these ills is the mother.  The load is staggering.
  • Women who leave a partner to raise children on their own are more than five times likely to live in poverty than if they had stayed with that partner
  • 70% of part-time workers and 66% of minimum wager earners are women
  • Women who were in similar job situations receive only 71% of what a man makes
  • Women spend almost twice as much time doing unpaid work as men

Look, I’m not trying to pile it on here, but numbers like these are compelling enough to cause us to make some economic changes.  That’s what happened to this woman I was speaking with.  When I got to the part about a single mom’s net worth being only $17,000, she broke down, telling me that her daughter was in just such a predicament.  Three hours later the same woman knocked at our front door, handed me a box of baby formula, and signed a generous cheque to the food bank. 

What changed her mind?  Not my words, for sure.  It was just the sheer numbers, the weight of acquired evidence, that reminded her that millions of women like her actually weren’t really like her at all.  They had little opportunity, precious few resources, limitations on access, and, ironically, little time to pass judgments on others.  They are just trying to survive.

When these women approach us at the food bank, telling us of the massive challenges they face each day, are we destined to just sit there, nod, and remind them that they can always come to us for assistance?  Given the weight of such evidence, is it not our responsibility to permit them to face challenges in their own neighbourhoods, where their children play and go to school, and a broader range of supports are available?

The London Food Bank’s announcement of last week is little less than taking the war on women’s poverty seriously, even calling for community change.  Our city can no longer accept families facing a system-wide poverty when better ways can be researched, discovered, and enabled.

Tony Blair’s response that day should leave us just as speechless.  If we’re serious about poverty, then we’d be better prepare ourselves to fight for a woman’s right to a better world.  They are already in the trenches and we must meet them where they live.

Living Research

MDG : Data revolution


OCCASIONALLY COMMUNITIES HAVE TROUBLE telling their own stories.  It often happens during times of transition, when change moves faster than a city’s ability to understand it.

This is what happened in London when it came to a growing poverty problem.  While places like the London Food Bank were reporting that their clientele had climbed 40% in the last five years, London struggled to determine what was happening and what were the causes.

The answers were never fully clear because the data required to get a good grasp on the problem was just not available.  Much of the data presently in use has come from Statistics Canada but was regionally based and couldn’t drill down to isolate what was really happening in our city.  The killing off of the long-form census only compounded the problem.  Numerous agencies had gathered data for the operation of their own organizations, but these often remained in isolation, not gathered or collated into a grander study.  And much of the poverty research for London was accomplished by academic institutions – data that ended up in academic journals or eventually consigned to library bookshelves

Even a decade ago there had been an increasing voice in London searching for some kind of central place for data capture, but then came the great financial fallout beginning in 2008 – a period where every community was preoccupied with attempting to just survive the significant economic fallout locally, nationally, and globally.

The need for better research in poverty in London remained and two groups came together to discuss the possibility of providing a centre solely dedicated to understanding poverty in London through the accumulation and promotion of accurate research.  The Sisters of St. Joseph and the London Food Bank decided to work together towards the possibility of establishing a dedicated research centre to study poverty in our city.  Resources were channeled from both organizations to begin the process, but it became quickly apparent that more funding would be required.

Application was made by a joint proposal from both organizations to the London Community Foundation’s Vitality Grant program – a process that eventually resulted in a grant of $250,355 dedicated specifically to the founding and establishment of the London Poverty Research Centre.

Larger community consultations took place with key partners to instigate data sharing agreements, collaboration, and an agreement to work together to harmonize stories about poverty in London and how it might be beaten

A task force had been established, charged with steering the new organization into the future.  It selected three key areas for research in the Centre’s first few years – 1) precarious work; 2) food security; 3) mental health and housing.  The focus will be on “Living Research” – the inclusion of those living in poverty to tell their stories in real-time and to help shape the effectiveness of the forthcoming research.

From its inception, the London Poverty Research Centre determined that along with the importance of research, there also had to be a strong public component centered on education, the importance of media (traditional and social), the need to inform politicians and policy makers, and the ultimate need to draw Londoners themselves into the dialogue about growing poverty and how to tackle it.

Productive talks have been underway between the Poverty Research Centre and King’s University College to partner together to bring relevant data for public consumption and for policy discussion.

The London Poverty Research Centre was launched yesterday – four months following the initial grant from the London Community Foundation.  With its proposed partnership with King’s University College, the research centre now has in place solid academic support and an exciting mandate to take any findings “public,” to inform debate and tackle poverty at its root causes.

There were a few complaints when the centre was announced yesterday, saying, “Hasn’t enough research been accumulated already?  Isn’t it time to take action?”  The answer to such well-intentioned queries is yes and no.  Not enough research has been done from the standpoint of those living in direct poverty that permits them to build their personal stories directly into the data itself.  And, yes, much research has been done.  But for it to be actionable, it must be brought together into a compelling voice that can gain traction in the public space.  Maybe then politicians and citizens alike will work together for community equity.

London has been through years of difficult transition, but the key to finding a new future lies in our knowledge of what our direct challenges are.  With the presence of the London Poverty Research Centre, our community will be provided with the relevant data to face and change the future of poverty in London through knowledge of both the statistics and direct stories of those struggling in poverty.  The future begins with the gathering of that knowledge and its direct placement in the hands of leaders and citizens alike to build the community they want.

The poor have become lost in all the data about them.  It is time to put those struggling in poverty into the narrative itself and provide them opportunity to shape their own future, just as we wish do with ours.  It can be a compelling story, but first it must be a collective and a collected voice.

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