Canadians must try to understand what it means to be poor

Posted on August 11, 2011 in Social Security Debates

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August 10, 2011.   By Janet Keeping

I often wonder why concern about poverty in Canada is not more intense and widespread.

Are Canadians really as indifferent as we seem? Or is some of the failure to react a function of ignorance? Certainly many people seem not to appreciate that there is acute poverty in Canada.

For example, in Calgary — one of the wealthiest cities in Canada — more than 100,000 people, or about 10% of the population use food banks annually. This fact is not widely known, even in Calgary, although it is publicized from time to time in the media.

In any event, ignorance can’t entirely explain the failure of Canadians to react to the poverty in our midst. There is more to our apparent apathy about poverty; namely a profound failure of imagination. Knowing something –such as that many Canadians are poor –is one thing. Understanding the significance of being poor is quite another. If you can’t picture the suffering, you aren’t going to appreciate the imperative to help.

When told the people were starving for want of bread, Marie Antoinette –the last Queen of France = famously replied “Well, then, let them eat cake.” That phrase has become synonymous with a callous disregard for the lot of the (much) less fortunate.

But the anecdote also connotes an inability to picture how life goes for people in very different circumstances from yours. If Marie Antoinette’s bread supply had ever been low, there would have been many other foodstuffs to keep hunger at bay, primary amongst them cake. This wasn’t true for the masses.

In contemporary Canada the demeaning grind of poverty looks very different than it did in 18th century France, but poverty remains dispiriting and painful.

It looks like the parent who has always to say “no” to a child’s desire for what others all around have. It looks like the degradation of having to tell your child’s principal that you can’t afford the school trip and ask if a subsidy is available, and like the guilt of feeding your family what you can afford rather than the more nutritious foods you know they need to thrive.

And if your poverty is caused by being out of work, then it looks like the agony of knowing you are providing a poor role-model and as a result the cycle of poverty may well be repeated in your child’s adult years.

Canadians must have the relevant information — that there is significant poverty in our country –and they have to have some way into understanding what it means. Only with that kind of understanding will we insist that collectively –through public policy reform –we address the issue in a robust way.

The precise policy solution to poverty is not our concern here. It is instead: how do we get to the point that the suffering around us caused by poverty becomes intolerable and we insist upon action?

Our failure to reach that level of motivation is even more disconcerting now that the gap between rich and poor is growing in Canada (as it is in many countries). There is ever

stronger evidence of the connection between that gap and the incidence of serious social ills, such as teenage pregnancy, lower life expectancy and crime.

A growing body of evidence suggests that the bigger the income gap in any society, the worse the conditions for everyone in that society, not just the relatively poor. So even if you are not moved by the injustice of poverty and the stressful unhappiness it causes, you should be stirred to action by your own self-interest. Yet many people remain indifferent. So, what is going on here? I think it is this: we do not see our interconnectedness.

The notion that our individual well-being is strongly connected to the well-being of the broader society flies in the face of one of the strongest myths of our place and time: that you make it or don’t almost exclusively on the strength of your own effort.

We persist in believing we are personally responsible for our poverty or wealth, as though what is going on around us has no relevance. Increasingly it looks like this is far from the whole story and in important ways simply not true.

Greater knowledge, imagination and understanding of our interconnectedness seem needed to spur an ethical response to poverty alleviation.

Janet Keeping is president of the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.

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