Hot! Blaming the poor for their problems a cheap excuse not to be part of the solution

LFPress.com – opinion/column/the city
December 3, 2013.   By Ian Gillespie

We need better poor people.

They can’t be angry or troublesome. They should be pious, polite and grateful. They need to have a couple of cute, wide-eyed kids, preferably doing well in school. And they’d better not own a big-screen TV.

I’m being sarcastic, but I believe I’m being honest, too.

As the holiday season unfolds, and the food banks and charities ramp up their pleas for help, it’s tempting to think a token donation is enough to lessen our feelings of guilt and there’s really nothing we can do because poor people are authors of their own misfortune.

Frankly, the experts who work with the poor don’t see it that way. And after attending last week’s Bridges Out Of Poverty workshop, I don’t either.

But many disagree.

Like the reader who responded to my column about a soon-to-be-launched local Circles Campaign, which aims to team low-income families and individuals with volunteers from the middle class to help solve the daily problems faced by the poor.

In this reader’s estimation, such programs can’t be “taken seriously as anything other than a feel-good money pit.”

This, despite the fact the program is anchored by volunteers; the biggest cost, according to a Circles pilot budget, will be the about $80,000 annual salary for a program co-ordinator. (A salary, I’m sure, that many will greet with derision.) And studies show that during a period of 18 months, participating families achieve “measurable gains” in income, employment, education, assets and social networks.

According to Michelle Quintyn — president of Goodwill Industries (Ontario Great Lakes), which plans to deliver the Circles program to 40 local low-income families — average income of low-income participants rises 48%, while financial support drops 36%.

That won’t mollify critics, because most opponents believe laziness is the root of the problem.

But as explained by Martine Creasor, a Circles caseworker with Lambton County, there’s nothing “lazy” about a single-mother who, on top of the daily demands of parenting, education and job-hunting, has to lug her kids on and off city buses to get to social agencies, food banks and other destinations.

When you’re poor, everything — from doing your laundry to buying groceries — takes more time and energy. (For one thing, the poor usually don’t own cars or washing machines.)

Creasor also argued middle-classers tend to hold low-income individuals to higher standards. It’s OK for us, for example, to max out our credit card for a “special” family vacation in Disneyland, but we’re appalled to learn that a poor person used their tax return money to pay for a special weekend trip to Niagara Falls or, heaven forbid, a new TV — or anything that offers some small respite or relief.

“The shame of poverty is that we allow it to exist,” says Mary Gordon, founder and president of the Toronto-based international agency Roots of Empathy. “To say that these people (mired in poverty) are somehow derelict . . . is so unjust. That position is forged in ignorance.”

The volunteer-driven Circles Campaign aims to help the poor, one person at a time. And if we fail to support an idea like that, then we deserve the dysfunctional — and yes, difficult — community we get.

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