When poverty becomes respectable

TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – When poverty becomes respectable: As unemployment begins to affect average people, they see the poor in a new light
May 17, 2009.   Judith McCormack

As painful as the current economic crisis may be, it does at least provide us with some valuable insights.

Now that the threat of poverty has suddenly landed on the doorsteps of so many ordinary, hard-working people, it forces us to see this particular problem in a new and clear-eyed way. In fact, many of the myths about poverty have gone up in smoke, much like Bernard Madoff’s investments.

Try as we might to cling to the outdated idea that poor people are lazy or dependent, we’re now face to face with the evidence that layoffs, economic restructuring and market forces can quickly push any of us into dire straits.

We’ve lost our ability to pretend that poor people are “them.” Alas, it turns out they could be us, or our neighbours, friends and relatives.

This uncomfortable revelation has the effect of highlighting the ways in which we normally stigmatize the poor, and the punitive nature of our social policies toward them.

Much as the Great Depression of the 1930s led to a shift of public opinion on poverty, a defining moment is upon us again. Then, as now, the macroeconomic causes of unemployment and homelessness were suddenly visible, undermining the idea that poverty was caused by individual failure or character defects.

The soaring unemployment of the Dirty ’30s and the tens of thousands of people on government relief produced a significant change in public consciousness.

It became apparent that the economy was too unpredictable and contingent to make the ability to find a job either a prerequisite for the necessities of life or the primary criterion for social worth.

Poor people, previously considered moral outcasts, began to emerge as fellow human beings who had simply lost the economic lottery.

And attention shifted to social programs to ameliorate the harsh impact of market forces.

This was the climate in which many of our modern social programs had their genesis, including unemployment insurance and family allowances.

Fast forward to 2009.

We now know even more about the complex structural causes of poverty – not only the economic dislocations that eliminate jobs, but other factors such as low minimum wages, systemic discrimination, and the lack of affordable housing.

We know even more about the effects of poverty, the social exclusion that accompanies it and the price tag attached – not just in terms of individual misery, but through the increased costs it creates in the health-care, education and justice systems as well.

And we know even more about the unequal impact of poverty, where the poor include disproportionate numbers of people of colour, the elderly, people with disabilities and single parent families.

But the current economic crisis is a startling reminder that few of us are invulnerable.

With this realization also comes an opportunity for some public soul-searching, as well as a chance to redefine the role of our social programs. The soul-searching has to do with the lingering effects of notions of moral censure and charity that still dominate some of the public debate on poverty.

This has contributed to a situation where homelessness is more of an epidemic than swine flu, and where more than 700,000 people in Canada are forced to use food banks each month – half of them families with children.

At the same time, our social programs have all too often been miscast as frills, boondoggles or handouts to the undeserving.

Now that more and more of us are forced to turn to employment insurance and welfare, those myths are also in some disarray – much like the shrinking programs themselves.

This is a hard way to learn a lesson, but it does at least clear the way for a more sophisticated understanding of the role of social programs, one in which they are closer to the core of what it means to be a society.

Rather than being simply ameliorative, these programs embody a form of social citizenship in which all individuals are entitled to food, clothing, education, health care and full participation in society – not as a matter of altruism or compassion, but because these are rights that flow from the inherent dignity of personhood.

Much the same reasoning applies to the outdated notion that these programs are somehow peripheral to the mainstream.

In fact, they form an essential part of the backbone of a society, something central to the very idea of society itself.

In this sense, intelligent social investment is a fundamental aspect of the social glue that holds us together, a reflection of the essential interconnectedness of people occupying the same turf.

As a result, allowing social programs to deteriorate has implications not just for the individuals who are deprived of them, but for the structural integrity of society as a whole.

Going forward then, this perspective has the potential to inform the development of social policies in a way that is more coherent, knowledgeable and comprehensive.

And there is no better time to develop more enlightened social policies than now – when we think they might apply to us.

Judith McCormack is an adjunct professor and the executive director of Downtown Legal Services, the community legal clinic of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law.

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