Thursday, June 29, 2017

Reflections on Poverty in Canada

Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty. (Mother Theresa)

The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations. (Adam Smith)

If our daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

The community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles. (Plato)

So much ink has been poured into the roots of, the implications and the solutions to poverty, that another piece seems redundant. Given our failure even to move in the direction of reducing its scourge, (in fact we are rapidly careening in the other direction), it also seems futile to parse it again. Broken records, it seems, belong in the landfill.

Together, can we “be poet enough” to see how through social policy, education, family parenting, faith communities and a shared effort to move the needle forward on an international consciousness that this could be a moment for planetary transformation.
Even, or especially, the most heroic aspirations require the most humble and deliberate baby steps. Planetary change also begins in a single heart and mind and starts to ‘move’ through the heart and mind of another and another….etc. Starting “at the top” with political ideologies is clearly counter-productive and counter-intuitive to reducing all the faces of poverty. The people who represent the poor, it can be said with considerable confidence, have no experience, or appreciation or empathy for those whose lives have drifted off the main roads into one or more ditches or over one or more cliffs. Their language, world view, ambition and even their idealism stand in the way of fully grappling with the gordion knot of scarcity.

In some theology schools, students are sent out on city streets with a $10 bill in their shoe, and told to “survive” for a weekend on that meagre allowance, as part of a pedagogical initiative to simulate poverty for a brief moment. Danger, the spectre of violence, robbery, assault (especially for women) and fear all rise simultaneously like a multi-headed, seering “sun” in the mind of those about to embark on this voyage. Street health workers face the homeless daily, while scurrying to find supplies, funding and the courage and energy to continue their desperately needed work. And while national health care and emergencies rooms and 24-7 clinics have taken some of the edge off the ravages of poverty, in some countries, they have also taken the edge of urgency off politicians and social policy developers. Social workers, at this moment, area visiting homes where children are being abused primarily because of a perception of scarcity of resources ranging through fiscal, social, intellectual and parenting skills. Teachers stand in front of classrooms this morning where unwanted children, and those who believe they are unwanted, try to concentrate on today’s lessons, knowing full well that they will return to the emotional, spiritual and (too often) fiscal desert of their homes later in the day.

And, at least in North America, news stories of lonely and unwanted children, if they make it to the “women’s’” pages, the “Life” pages, or the police report pages, do not warrant serious coverage. How many children, today, are waiting for foster of adoptive homes, attempting to cope with circumstances none of us would wish on our worst enemy. And this is only one of the plethora of implications of feeling unwanted, lonely and desperate. The poverty of parental experience, starving their imaginations from options, especially options when facing serious trauma, bounces onto their own children, in a kind of “second-accident whiplash” (in car accidents, the most lethal impact).

And there is the poverty of simple expectations, for example, as to whether the world will take kindly to a piece of artwork, or a halting attempt at poetry, or a initial effort at gymnastics. If the world has either looked away or poured contempt on a young boy’s or a young girl’s body, mind and spirit, that becomes what that child “knows” about how the world works. And their “hardwiring” (familial, social and cultural, not biological) brings a cloud onto their horizon as the “normal” expectation for their life.
Studies of lonely and unwanted children, however, do not normally attract the attention of social science faculties, unless and until those children become wards of the court, or cases on the social workers’ files. And, once again, we are picking those children falling over the proverbial waterfalls out of the “water” rather than preventing their trauma in the first place. Of course, we would have to acknowledge our collective responsibility for their plight, and that would provoke a revolution in our concept of healthy governance.

“After all, I had to pick myself up by the bootstraps, and I didn’t have it easy, so why shouldn’t they!” is the lament chanted by the “rugged individualists” and the neo-cons who are on the throne these days.

Another typical lament, from the opponents to everything written here, is the old adage, “Suck it up! and quit complaining! Better people than you had it much worse than you, and look at them!”

Both of those laments, and many others of a similar theme, are little more than rationalizations to cover any guilt, and certainly any responsibility we might experience. And then we can and do glibly pass by and carry on with our self-absorbed lives.

Their anticipation of a life of deep and profound struggle and loneliness, just as they have known it so far hangs over every hour and every day whether they give voice to that world view or not. They also curb their hopes and their dreams for attaining even modest success, having watched their families dig an ever-deepening trench of “tradition” and social class, language, entertainment and a kind of life stripped of poetry. Stereotypically, poetry is for the “educated” and the upper class, or more cynically, for those who think they are better than we are. We can only hope that some day in the not-too-distant future, some social scientist will receive a grant for a doctoral thesis investigating the cost of the trash-heap of unrealized potential to the national and the local economies. Of course we celebrate the rare stories of rags-to-riches success; however, this is not about Horatio Alger and the promise of great wealth in fiscal terms. It is about human lives that have intellect, imagination, curiosity, and determination, without the human and/or fiscal resources to climb the mountains of their highest dreams. (And please don’t read “human” as “other people”…take it as the withered human talents and qualities of the person him or herself.)
The Rilke quote seems to be a challenge for what is above: for the Creator there is no poverty. This piece, however, is looking at the potential of each and every child getting to the starting place of the Creator, whose omnipotence, and omniscience and omnipresence put Him/Her at a distinct advantage over the ghetto child. It is nevertheless true that much poetic expression comes from the many ghettos around the world. In fact, many of the poorest and most desperate voices cry most poignantly, almost clairvoyantly, about their loves and their plight, in language that seems to escape the ears and the conscience of those in power everywhere.
In fact, in spite of the scriptural note that the poor will always be with us, our interest in their plight and in addressing their realities is so shamefully low that we seem indifferent. And indifference is the opposite of love, not hate as some might expect.

In Canada, just today, two days prior to our national 150th birthday, indigenous people struggled to get permission to erect a teepee on Parliament Hill, for the four days of the national celebration. However, these indigenous people are not celebrating; they are trying to draw attention to their prolonged plight.

A lack of clean drinking water, unsafe housing, broken school systems, and a crisis of suicide among indigenous youth are just some of the issues they are protesting, issues that have been outstanding for over a century.

From Canada Without Poverty website, here are some statistics for serious consideration:

·       1 in 7 (or 4.9 million) people in Canada live in poverty.
·       In Edmonton, 1 in 8 individuals are currently living in poverty.
·       Poverty costs Canada as a whole between $72 billion and $84 billion annually; Ontarians pay $2,299 – $2,895 per year, while British Columbians pay over $2,100 per year.
·       Precarious employment has increased by nearly 50% over the past two decades.
·       Between 1980 and 2005, the average earnings among the least wealthy Canadians fell by 20%.
·       Over the past 25 years, Canada’s population has increased by 30% and yet annual national investment in housing has decreased by 46%.


·       Nearly 15% of people with disabilities live in poverty, 59% of which are women.
·       Estimates place the number of homeless individuals living with a disability or mental illness as high as 45% of the overall homeless population.
·       Children with disabilities are twice as likely to live in households relying on social assistance
·       21% of single mothers in Canada raise their children while living in poverty (7% of single fathers raise their children in poverty).
·       Women parenting on their own enter shelters at twice the rate of two-parent families.
·       Indigenous Peoples (including First Nations, M├ętis, and Inuit peoples) are overrepresented among the homeless population in virtually all urban centres in Canada.
·       28%-34% of shelter users are Indigenous.
·       1 in 5 racialized families live in poverty in Canada, as opposed to 1 in 20 non-racialized families.
·       Racialized women living in poverty were almost twice as likely to work in manufacturing jobs than other women living in poverty.
·       Overall, racialized women earn 32% less at work.
·       Nearly 15% of elderly single individuals live in poverty.
·       Nearly 2 million seniors receive the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and live on about $17,000 per year. However, the most basic standard of living in Canada is calculated at $18,000 per year for a single person

Typically, whenever data like the above is presented, eyes glaze over, ears go deaf and minds quite literally close. The litany of poverty statistics is so dulling that it evokes somnambulance, indifference, and if we are going to be direct, insouciance.
Remember, in Canada, in 1979 then New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent moved, and received unanimous agreement from all members of the Canadian Parliament to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.

Here are the statistics on Child Poverty in Canada:

·       In Canada, 1.3 million children live in conditions of poverty (that’s 1 in 5).
·       1 in 2 Status First Nations children lives in poverty.
·       8% of children in British Columbia live in poverty with children under the age of 6 representing an even higher poverty rate of 20.1% (both are higher than the national average of 18.5%)
·       1 in 5 Edmontonian children (under the age of 18) live in poverty, which increases to 1 in 3 children in single-parent families.
·       40% of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty, and 60% of Indigenous children on reserves live in poverty.
·       More than one-third of food bank users across Canada were children in 2016.
·       About 1 in 7 of those using shelters in Canada are children.

Food insecurity is another area impacted by poverty in Canada

·       Residents in Nunavut spend twice as much on food as the rest of the country on average ($14,800 v. $7,300 annually).
·       4 million people in Canada experience food insecurity.
·       1 in 8 Canadian households struggle to put food on the table.
·       In 2014, the majority of food insecure households – 62.2% – were reliant on wages or salary from employment.
·       8 out of 10 provinces saw an increase in food bank usage in 2016.
·       62% of children living in the North are food insecure.
·       2 out of every 5 Northern households are food insecure.
·       Food bank usage across Canada is 3% higher than 2015 and 28% higher than it was in 2008.
·       7 of 10 Inuit preschoolers live in food insecure households.
·       Food bank usage has increased in all provinces since 2008, apart from Newfoundland and Labrador.
·       2% of food bank users are Indigenous.

Impact of poverty on Health in Canada

·       1 in 10 Canadians cannot afford to fill their medical prescriptions. Canada is the only industrialized country with a universal healthcare system but without a national pharmacare policy.
·       A McMaster University study found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between the poorest and wealthiest residents of Hamilton, Ontario.
·       Researchers have found that men in the wealthiest 20% of neighbourhoods in Canada live on average more than four years longer than men in the poorest 20% of neighbourhoods.
·       Estimates place the cost of socio-economic disparities in the health system to be 20% of all healthcare spending.
·       It has been estimated that $1 invested in the early years of a child’s life can save up to $9 in future spending in the healthcare system.
·       Food insecure households were 80% more likely to report having diabetes, 60% more likely to report high blood pressure, and 70% more likely to report food allergies.

Impact of Poverty on Housing in Canada
·       3 million Canadian households are precariously housed (living in unaffordable, below standards, and/or overcrowded housing conditions).
·       An estimated 235,000 people in Canada experienced homelessness in 2016, with roughly 35,000 people being homeless on any given night.
·       Almost 1 in every 5 households experience serious housing affordability issues (spending over 50% of their low income on rent) which puts them at risk of homelessness.
·       Three-quarters of Yukon’s population live in Whitehorse where the average price of housing increased 80% over six years.
·       Estimates place the number of homeless individuals living with a disability or mental illness as high as 45% of the overall homeless population.
·       In Toronto, there were 5,219 people who were homeless in 2013 (the latest available data). Roughly half of the homeless population were on wait lists for affordable housing during the same period.
·       Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation predicts that its major national housing program funding will fall from $3.04 billion (2010) to $1.68 billion by 2017 — a $1.36 billion difference.
·       According to new research, spending $10 on housing and support for high-need chronically homeless individuals resulted in almost $22 of savings related to health care, social supports, housing, and the justice system.
·       Youth aged 16-24 make up about 20% of the homeless population
·       The number of older adults and seniors experiencing homeless is rising, making up a combined 4% of shelters users in 2016

The potential impact of this data, however, can not and must never be reduced to numbers. These are human beings whose potential to contribute to our country, on the weekend of its 150th birthday is severely limited. The hopes and aspirations of the children in these numbers are, from the ‘get-go’ crippled and will likely fail to materialize. Not only will the social and economic and legal and medical costs of these facts be astronomical, but the lives of the people inside these numbers will be impaired without their appearing in public with leg braces, or with deformed bodies, or with physical markings that designate them as “special needs” individuals.

And yet they do have special needs and their human rights are being violated every day by a culture that is not even talking about the blight.

It is a tragedy of epic proportions, especially given the relative wealth of our country, in comparison with other world countries.

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