ASKED BACK IN 2012 WHY POVERTY WAS SO ENTRENCHED in affluent societies around the world, President Barack Obama provided an answer that, while infuriating some social activists, actually gave hope to others. He simply said that it was time to apply “two-generation solutions.” He meant developing initiatives that affected both parents and their children as opposed to isolated programs that helped one but not the other. And such policies would take time to develop to be effective, he believed.
We don’t really want to hear this because those enduring grinding poverty require quick alleviation of their distressing circumstances. We want to believe that through good-hearted actions that we create paths to escape from poverty’s hold. I wrote a blog post last week concerning how communities must bring their various anti-poverty initiatives together in order to begin this process, but we must come to terms with the reality that they will never be enough. They are vital efforts at galvanizing a community around the challenges of low-income, mental illness, the gender bias of poverty, hunger, and early development. Without them, every community would lose focus on those struggling to make ends meet.
But surely we can’t settle for the belief that donated food supplies are the ultimate answer for eradicating hunger, or that temporary shelters are the solution for the housing crisis, can we? Food banks, hostels, school breakfast programs, donated furniture or articles of clothing – examples like these are what keep citizens engaged, but they can never replace having a good job, a safe place to live, the income to purchase food for the family, or dedicated services to help someone through the difficult journey of mental illness. All the charity in the world will never be truly effective unless it leads to systems change. And for that, we require governments at all levels to up their game for poverty reduction – something that we’ll cover in the next post.
It remains vital to reform systems because those suffering in poverty or homelessness struggle far more against prevailing customs and system indifference than they do hunger, unemployment, or stigmatization. Virtually every person in poverty has had to learn to navigate economic, political, judicial, educational, and democratic system obstruction in order to survive and hopefully prevail. Hunger is real. The lack of shelter is real. Gender bias is real. But they became prevalent because systems couldn’t summon the courage to tackle them.
And if you want to reform systems, then be prepared to fight for a few decades – for perhaps two generations, as Obama notes. It will require healthy investments in early learning and childcare, post-secondary education, healthy communities, productive paths to employment, plenty of social capital, a democracy that includes all, roads to defeating endemic racism, secure housing, and all those facets of community life that lead to a productive future for all. There is just no way a single community, populated by remarkably generous citizens, can accomplish all this without proper policies, decisive decision-making, and resources that can only come from government levels.
Poverty didn’t suddenly arise because some people had money and others didn’t. Prevailing systems exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor. They refused to close the gap between women and men for equal pay for equal work. They legislated decisions that saw those suffering a mental illness being taken care of in hospital emergency rooms instead of in dedicated facilities that provided the kind of wrap-around supports that guided patients through a journey that leads to independence and success.
It is time that we added democratic conviction to community compassion, and if we refuse to bring that about, then poverty will prevail over our neighbourhoods and cities for decades to come. We have to stop maintaining that we are “affluent” societies when we tolerate child poverty at such high rates. There’s nothing affluent about living on a street where citizens can’t afford their own food, or where able-bodied women and men can’t find a career path. There’s nothing affluent about living in a neighbourhood where the colour of a person’s skin determines their prospects for opportunity.
We are either all in this together, or we will slowly come apart – as we have been doing for the last few decades. Canadians are a good people and can be counted on to share of their bounty. But goodwill can never eradicate poverty. Only equal opportunity for all can do that. And for that, we require legislation, more inclusive policies, dedicated politicians, and a democratic system that will fight just as vigilantly for every person to gain prosperity as it does for every citizen to secure the right to vote.
Gandhi once said that poverty is the worst form of violence, and he was right. Supporting systems that keep people in poverty is equally as dispiriting as relegating them to chains. This is not the Canada we want, and if we want to change we must begin by listening to those who have survived the systems of diminishment and yet still strive for a better life. Let’s take the time to do it right by listening to them and build an equitable society that refuses to compromise the most vulnerable among us.