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GEORGE: A poverty of guilt

June 19, 2018 - 12:00 PM

OPINION


The headline blared "In Bill Morneau's riding, 40% of children live in poverty, report says".

The story is about a report issued by "Campaign 2000" going over the latest child poverty numbers in Canada. This year they have added a twist. They are attempting to use guilt on individual politicians by breaking down the numbers by riding. It won't work.

All of us, not just the politicans, seem to be immune to guilt when it comes to this issue. A quick perusal of the comments on the CBC story bring forward a host of excuses that we have built our immunity on.

First up is the idea of merit. Poverty is seen as a consequence of personal failure. Child poverty is seen as a failure by the parents, something that the children living it somehow deserve for losing the birth lottery.

This is clearly not the case but this is a tough falsehood to dodge. It is ground into us at such an early age that people have a difficult time seeing it for what it is. It makes poverty into something shameful and something to fear.

Shame and fear are two powerful methods of control and coercion. Guilt does come into it for some who manage to "keep the wolf from the door" long enough to move up the social and economic food chain. Unfortunately, this guilt does nothing to motivate the silver spoon crowd who wield the power in our society.

It is said that the politicians we elect are a reflection of the electorate. That as citizens we seek political candidates who not only share our values but promise to uphold those values while making decisions on our behalf.

Is immunity to compassion one of those values? The results seem to bear that out but the numbers don't quite add up. Nine million Canadians earn less than $20,000 per year in our society which is less than minimum wage. Over one-quarter of the citizenry of this country (and their dependants) are poor. And mainly they are all citizens who are old enough to vote.

Our system of political economy does poorly when it comes to representing the values of this group of citizens. The poor are simply more charitable than the rich and the values behind it are empathy and compassion, two things that no amount of money can buy.

Empathy and compassion in the quantities required simply don't transfer well onto those who seek office in this country. You either have them or you don't. And no amount of "fake it 'til you make it" can replace the real thing.

In 1989, the parliament of Canada unanimously passed an aspirational resolution put forth by Ed Broadbent at his retirement.

"Be it resolved that this House express its concern for the more than one million Canadian children living in poverty and seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000."

A generation later, the country still hasn't come close to achieving this goal. In fact the situation has gotten worse as the number of Canadian children living in poverty continues to grow.

We have many great excuses for this failure but it really comes down to priorities and money. The current strategy of looking the other way has failed. Claims of fiscal inability from successive governments, both Liberal and Conservative, ring hollow when they can find money for gazebos and war machines yet can't quite seem to ever put together something for the most marginalized of Canadians.

So whose values do our elected officials represent if not those who vote for them?

Poverty costs us all. Importing an ideological strategy on this issue from our neighbours to the south fails. Their solution of "personal responsibility" and damn the torpedoes can only work in a system where prisons and hospitals are run for profit. Poverty becomes a profit generator as people with poverty-related problems seek solutions to the symptoms of poverty. Here in Canada, those solutions are part and parcel of our social system.

At the end of the day, the tacit support for child poverty in this country leads to the taxpayer picking up the tab.

Those toward the upper end of the income spectrum benefit from poverty in that without this goad, wages across the economy would be up and dividends would be down as people replaced fear with aspiration in their working lives. The guilt, fear, and shame of poverty are fabulous tools to prompt us all to work hard to keep our heads above water. But they do nothing for Canadian children.

We have let another generation slip by since 1989. It is time to stop making excuses and for us to confront this problem head-on. Trying to guilt politicians is pointless. They only understand power and by design the poor don't have any.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.


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