Politeness will not end poverty
My colleagues over in the editorial department at the Daily News got our collective knickers in a righteous knot this past week over exactly what is the oh-so-polite and proper way to express one’s… well… one’s discontent with the seeming failure of our political betters to manage to accomplish anything more meaningful than make promises they don’t keep, or "talk, talk, talk" about the absolutely critical, highest-priority, job-one importance of wrestling poverty into submission.
Which is what led the paper, in a Tuesday editorial about a protest by the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, to harrumph: Antipoverty Group Makes Wrong Point.
The day before, about 20 members of the coalition had briefly taken over a local welfare office, chanting slogans to bring attention to their demands, which included doubling current income-assistance rates, pegging welfare to the Consumer Price Index, making those on student loans eligible for financial aid and ending the claw-back of the wages of income-assistance recipients. Although one protester was charged with assault, the demonstration itself was generally peaceful and the group dispersed when police asked them to.
Coalition spokesperson Keli Bellaire said that the brief occupation was a reaction to the group’s ongoing, never-ending frustrations dealing with the provincial Department of Community Services. "They don’t do anything. They talk and talk, and they won’t change," Bellaire told reporter Stephane Massinon.
While conceding that the group’s demands deserved "serious consideration," our editorial went on to call the protest itself a "reckless and dangerous publicity stunt," and said it would not help their cause. By contrast, the paper praised Oxfam Canada’s recent Hunger Banquet that "graphically demonstrated the widening gap between rich and poor" as "helpful." The day before, in another editorial, the paper was equally effusive in describing Nova Scotians’ participation in an International Stand Up Against Poverty campaign as "a worthy cause — and an urgent one as well. The more attention this matter gets, the better."
But the problem is not our lack of attention to the issue of poverty; the problem is our lack of action to end it.
You will remember that in 1989, our parliamentarians unanimously committed themselves — and us — to eliminating child poverty by the year 2000. On July 21, 2006, Campaign 2000: End Child Poverty in Canada, an umbrella group of more than 120 earnestly polite antipoverty groups, wrote yet another polite letter to Canada’s political leaders reminding them that over 1.2 million Canadian children — one in six — still live in poverty. According to UNICEF, in fact, our child poverty rate is the nineteenth worst among 26 OECD nations.
Two months ago, the National Council on Welfare, an advisory group to the federal government, published a report showing that, even adjusting for inflation, the incomes of most welfare recipients are now lower than they were 20 years ago. To cite just one close-to-home example, the annual social assistance income of a person with a disability in Nova Scotia declined from $11,241 in 1991 to just $8,897 in 2005, a drop in constant dollar figures of 20.9 per cent.
Council chairperson John Murphy rightly described the situation — politely, of course — as "shameful and morally unsustainable in a rich country."
The Council pointed out it would take $21.6 billion to bring all low-income Canadians up even to the poverty line. That may sound like a lot, but compare it to Canada’s gross domestic product of more than $1.2 trillion, and Murphy’s characterization of our response to poverty in our midst as “shameful” becomes more understandable — and more shameful.
Just as it is shameful for Premier Rodney MacDonald — whose government is first in line to shell out tax dollars to profitable multinational corporations like Michelin, and who, along with the rest of his legislative colleagues, is in line for a significant salary increase — to dismiss out of hand the coalition’s demands by claiming "we only have so many dollars and we have to live within our fiscal framework."
And shameful too for those of us who live in glass editorial houses to insist that those who speak out on behalf of the poor should continue to entertain us with Hunger Banquets and other polite reminders of poverty while we collectively continue to do nothing to deal with the issues they politely raise.
Stephen Kimber, the Maclean Hunter Professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of five nonfiction books as well as, Reparations, a novel published this spring by HarperCollins.