Fighting poverty takes collective effort

Posted on April 10, 2009 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Fighting poverty takes collective effort
April 10, 2009.   Tanna Brodbar, Community Editorial Board

To a large extent, Premier Dalton McGuinty’s 2009 budget reflects the provincial government’s commitment to reducing poverty.

Nevertheless, a number of gaps remain. Anti-poverty activists are calling for additional funds to meet essential needs of our most vulnerable populations. Both activists and the province recognize that all levels of government and community organizations must work together in order to make significant anti-poverty progress.

This shared commitment is critical. However, I believe lasting success is possible only through a collective effort in which we all must take part. To underscore why, it is important to understand the viciousness of poverty. There are those who believe the poor are the absolute arbiters of their condition. This way of thinking seems to be based on a tautology that contains poverty to a tidy but erroneous formula: poverty (i.e. pervasive scarcity of resources) = laziness (handouts are preferred over earning a paycheque) = apathy (systemic paucity of personal accountability) = poverty.

Not only is this an oversimplification of a complex issue, such thinking makes it harder to identify viable solutions.

Anyone who subscribes to this caricature of the poor cannot understand the tyranny of need that largely characterizes poverty. Having grown up poor, I understand it well. While I have since built a life I’d once considered out of reach, I’ve not forgotten what it is like to be on the other end of a handout.

As a child, the shame I felt – and was made to feel – at having less was matched by a sense of powerlessness. At times our family would get ahead a bit, only to fall back. The insidiousness of poverty is that setbacks become increasingly consequential in smothering any sense of possibility and hope.

Being poor is like walking on the surface of an icy lake. Those more fortunate have a lifeline of supports that can bring them to safety from the danger lurking below. But for those lacking such support, one misplaced step can activate a series of fractures that can pull them under completely.

Multiply this exponentially when domestic violence, addiction, mental health issues or homelessness are also confronted.

Living in poverty can create a terrible conundrum; as your life fragments around you, even small movement can threaten to trigger deeper exposures. In this reality, isn’t it better to hold still? For the poor, when basic supports are absent, the cracks that appear are infinitely wider and more impossible to outrun; the pull toward stasis becomes ever more hypnotic.

Housing support, child-care subsidies, affordable education and employment supports are foundational to laying an anti-poverty safety net. However, they represent just part of the solution.

Because living in poverty inculcates a sense of powerlessness, shame and immobilization, government financial support and social services programs must be complemented with collective engagement at the individual level – importantly, from the presupposition that all are worthy of a hand-up.

For example, all of us can be a partner in building an anti-poverty safety net by understanding poverty’s drivers and actively lobbying for increased government funding of social supports.

At a time when our economic security is shaken, it is essential that our commitment to reduce poverty is not. If not already doing so, those of us not living paycheque-to-paycheque should make a meaningful contribution to the charitable organizations of our choice. And rather than considering our contribution to be complete with that, we should also join those who are giving their time and energy by making a personal and family commitment to volunteer in communities where hope and self-empowerment are in limited supply.

In my own experience, the support of a compassionate mentor was a critical ingredient to getting where I am today.

As a society whose strength will ultimately be measured in the vulnerability of the weakest of us, a deepened sense of shared, communal responsibility will greatly increase our success at breaking poverty’s insidious hold.

If each one of us does not take our part in the effort, it will be to our collective shame.

Tanna Brodbar works in operational risk management, has a Masters in Humanities and also volunteers on the Board of Directors of Nellie’s, an emergency shelter and community supports organization for women and children.

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