Band-Aid approaches not working

WellandTribune.ca – Local News
Published Saturday, Dec. 11, 2010.   By Joe Barkovich

Persistent Poverty, the book released earlier this month, has been called “hard hitting.” There is no doubt it is that, and much more as well.

Readers would have to be thick skinned and heartless to not be moved by the stories of lived poverty within the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition’s latest project.

As do its predecessors (books such as Our Neighbours’ Voices, Lives in the Balance and Lives Still in the Balance) the latest publication brings real-life stories to the fore of public attention. It provides a collection of sharings by poor people in Ontario communities, large and small, urban and rural. It is compelling, provocative, distressing and disturbing.

Key here are the words “real life.” They are not fictionalized accounts, they are stories told by real people to real people who listened, made notes and then filed reports.

As a publicity piece for the book notes: “The conversations revealed savage inequalities — burgeoning food banks and endless affordable housing lineups. How can we continue to allow our most vulnerable neighbours to languish at the bottom of the heap?”

Here in south Niagara, we see evidence of how pervasive poverty is. We have community-wide food drives in four communities: Wainfleet, Port Colborne, Welland and Pelham. These are augmented by almost on-going food collections by faith communities, schools, food banks and other integral parts of the social safety net. Sadly, however, the need is never ending. There is no end in sight.

All well and good that communities are compassionate and caring.

But here’s something radical: maybe this is part of the problem.

Maybe this is why so many of our neighbours are in a revolving door that is given powerful pushes by outpourings and outbursts of charity.

We’ve made giant steps in responding to calls for charity on behalf of them, but just small steps in making social justice a focus in our relationships with others.

Let’s cut to the chase. The meat in this book, from my perspective, is found on pages 106 and 107.

We read that the United States, Canada and United Kingdom are identified as liberal welfare states and that “These nations provide minimal benefits to social assistance recipients, weak legislative support for the labour movement, meagre assistance for disabled people and a reluctance to provide universal services and programs. The services and programs that do exist are residual, intended — but often failing — to provide the most vulnerable people with even basic needs. Of the developed nations, Canada ranks among the lowest in terms of public spending on infrastructure in general and on families, pensions, early childhood education and care, and supports for persons with disabilities.”

It should be unpalatable to people with social conscience that such policies and conditions are tolerated.

We are reminded of the importance of social justice in dealing with poverty-related issues.

Here’s an excerpt: “Poverty can be reduced by shifting the course of public policy-making.

“To improve the conditions experienced by Canadians living in poverty, public policy must be modified to ensure the provision of living wages, affordable food, housing and quality child care. Achieving these goals will require pressure from both above and below. Pressure from above will depend on elected leaders and policy-makers who will commit themselves to achieving these aims.

“We see little evidence of this occurring in Ontario — which means that pressure from below by an aroused citizenry, together with those institutions concerned with health and well being, will be crucial.”

An “aroused citizenry” entails much more than responding to calls for volunteering at food drives and food pantries and soup kitchens.

We in the media may play a role in sugar coating the problem with feel-good stories about wonderful turnouts on food drive days and the unbounded enthusiasm and energy of well intentioned volunteers.

But what happens after the food drive is finished?

What happens after the food is sorted and put into boxes?

What happens after the boxes are delivered to food banks?

What happens after the volunteers go home?

Band-Aid approaches provide quick-fix assistance, not long-term solutions.

We need long-term solutions to poverty issues in our communities.

Persistent Poverty tells us there is need for educating the public that poverty is primarily a result of insensitive and uncaring public policy, and for showing that other jurisdictions have acted to reduce and in some cases almost eliminate the incidence of poverty.

The book makes a case for these and more.

The timing could not have been better.

It seems we will have two election campaigns in 2011: the provincial vote in the fall (Oct. 6) and the increasing likelihood of a federal vote probably in the spring.

Reading this book can make us more aware of the duties and responsibilities of “aroused citizenry”.

We see the need to scrutinize party ideology for what its offers in terms of social policy, and to inquire if policies balance the rights, obligations and opportunities of various segments of society, among other people-oriented principles.

It should challenge us to look inward — and outward. It should do the same to politicians who take time to read it.

One of the quotes used to open some the chapters of this book bears sharing here:

“The poor of Canada, the dispossessed, are largely an invisible problem. They are with us but not of us. We don’t come in contact with them. We know they exist and most of us believe something should be done about, but that’s about all” — Sen. David Croll, 1972.

Let that be food for thought.

jbarkovich@wellandtribune.ca

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