Why we must talk about race when we talk about poverty

TheStar.com – comment – Why we must talk about race when we talk about poverty: Statistics show that economic hardship disproportionately affects racial minorities
June 10, 2008. Avvy Go

This week, the provincial cabinet committee on poverty reduction is hosting the first of two invitation-only meetings scheduled for Toronto. Given the limited scope of the consultation process, the responsibility thus falls upon the community groups and individuals who are participating in these meetings to make sure that certain critical – though unpopular – questions will be addressed.

Ask any member of a racialized community who lives in poverty why they are poor and they will likely begin with the problems they have accessing good jobs or getting a promotion because of their race. They will talk about the invisible glass ceiling that seems to preserve the highest paid jobs for whites only.

If they are immigrants, they will be describing the lack of recognition for their internationally obtained degrees and experience, which leaves them little choice but to work in low-wage, dead-end jobs. They will also describe the discrimination they face in accessing health care and the unfair treatment of the justice system.

But more important, they are worried for their children, who are being suspended and expelled from school in large numbers, and are at risk of dropping out altogether. They fear that the sacrifices they have made as parents are not enough to guarantee their children a better life than they have had.

Sadly, the statistics bear out their concerns. In the Toronto area, racialized group members are two to three times as likely to live in poverty as non-racialized groups. In Toronto, racialized families make up almost 60 per cent of poor families. Between 1981 and 2000, when the poverty rate dropped by 28 per cent for non-racialized group members, it jumped by 361 per cent for members of racialized communities.

For members of racialized communities, racial identity is key to their experience of disparity. However, the issue of race and how it intersects with poverty seems to be absent from the directions given by the cabinet committee for the consultations. Framed as “focusing on children first,” the committee’s questions may not be conducive to inviting input on how to address the issues of social exclusion.

Yet politicians are not the only ones who have problems talking about race and poverty. With few exceptions, mainstream economists and anti-poverty activists have yet to fully embrace a race-conscious analysis of poverty and the appropriate policy responses. Mainstream policy discourse on poverty and economic policies are often described as race-neutral with little acknowledgement of the differential impact of poverty on diverse populations, despite the unequivocal evidence that poverty is not colour-blind.

The most recent release of Canadian income data by Statistics Canada is an example. The StatsCan report shows that between 1980 and 2005, recent immigrants lost ground relative to their Canadian-born counterparts. The employment income of immigrant men dropped from 85 cents for each dollar received by Canadian-born men in 1980 to 63 cents in 2005 and the corresponding numbers for recent immigrant women were 85 cents and 56 cents, respectively.

Recent immigrant men holding a degree earned only 48 cents to the dollar relative to their Canadian-born counterparts while the earning gap for non-university educated immigrants was 61 cents to every dollar earned by their Canadian-born equivalents. The more educated a newcomer is, the greater is his or her gap in income.

While the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs in unionized workplaces, and the overall decline in our economic performance contributed to this disturbing phenomenon, the earnings disparities between recent immigrants and Canadian-born workers increased not only during the two previous decades, but also between 2000 and 2005 when the economy was doing much better.

Missing in the mainstream narrative is the observation that most newcomers today are from racialized communities – in contrast to 25 years ago – and that they are struggling economically despite their educational advantage over other Canadians.

Absent also is the fact that the newcomer experience is shockingly similar to that of members of racialized communities who are Canadian-born. Racialized newcomers are not the only ones who are losing ground. So are the second-generation, Canadian-born members of racialized groups, despite having higher levels of education than their cohort.

In other words, it is not that immigrants need more time to settle and catch up, it is about racialized communities lagging behind as a group – whether or not they are immigrants. Class distinction in Canada is becoming ever more a racial divide.

Those who deny poverty is racialized are not necessarily being nefarious. Like most Canadians, they have bought into our stated multicultural ideal of an equal society where everyone, regardless of race, enjoys equal rights and opportunities. It is an ideal we all share.

But beyond the lip service that is often paid, we as a society have not done nearly enough to address the structural and systemic racism that exists and its harmful consequences. Our collective denial is the biggest stumbling block to achieving racial equality.

Admitting that poverty in Canada is racialized is not an easy step to take, but a necessary one if we want to develop an effective anti-poverty strategy that addresses the root causes of poverty.

What we need urgently is a comprehensive poverty reduction plan that integrates a broad range of universal initiatives, accompanied by specific targeted measures to remedy the different underlying sources of vulnerability that expose racialized – and other disadvantaged – communities to poverty disproportionately.

Avvy Go is director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic.

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