Strong society requires strong social safety net, symposium hears

TheRecord.com – news/local
May 16 2013. Jeff Hicks – CAMBRIDGE

Our political leaders preach austerity.

Yet, Trish Hennessy says, our economic church continues to crumble into a pit of social and financial inequality.

We blindly cut, hoping that will drive us back to prosperity and out of the worsening cycle of child and family poverty.

“I like to call it the Jesus-take-the-wheel approach,” said Hennessy, the Ontario director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “I’d rather have all hands on the wheel.”

She was speaking Thursday at a poverty symposium for local social service providers and residents at Cambridge City Hall on Thursday.

Three decades of austerity-worship, and the promise of four more austerity budgets to come in Ontario, have worsened child and family poverty.

Self-immolation, she insists, produces nothing but pain through good and bad times.

In 1989, about 10 per cent of Ontario kids lived in poor families. By 2010, that number was up to 14.5 per cent.

When bad times hit, austerity measures are implemented. But the social gains of the past are eroded by the time the belt-tightening is loosened, Hennessy said.

“We never fully return to where we were in the first place. We never get all the services back. We just keep unravelling the social safety net and the things our parents built for us.”

The conversation needs to change, Hennessy argues. The terms of the conversation must be inversed. Forget minimum wage and the discussion of what costs business will bear.

Let’s talk about the living wage. Let’s start the discussion on what it takes for the worker to live. Let’s stop looking for ways to slash our public services and focus on what can be done to expand and enhance them.

Even taxes, forever linked to death as in inevitable horror, should be seen in a new light.

Taxes, Hennessy said, can be seen as good. Taxes can be viewed as an affirmation of our commitment to supporting each other. Taxes can be linked to life, not death.

Middle income families enjoy the equivalent of $40,000 in public services every year, Hennessy said.

How do you make people proud to pay taxes? That’s what one symposium participant asked the keynote speaker at the event organized by the Social Planning Council of Cambridge and North Dumfries and the Cambridge Roundtable to End Poverty Now.

“We get trapped in a way of looking at the world,” Hennessy said. “We have to change the conversation, change what we’re focusing on.”

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