On Christmas Eve, Lynne and I watched the Alastair Sim version of A Christmas Carol. It’s something we try to do every year. It is based on a novel Charles Dickens wrote in 1843 and has a lot to do with poverty.
Early in the story, a pair of bleeding-heart liberals come to Ebenezer Scrooge’s office raising money for poverty relief. Are there no prisons? Scrooge asks. Are there no workhouses? He sends them away empty-handed. Later, the Ghost of Christmas Present shows him two starving children. The boy is Ignorance, the ghost tells Scrooge, and the girl is Want. Society should beware them both, but most of all, beware the boy.
Early in December, Cam Guthrie opened his second term as Guelph’s mayor with an inaugural speech to city council. In it, he announced that he would form an Emergency Task Force to “amplify the work already being done by the Poverty Task Force, the Guelph-Wellington Drug Strategy, and blah blah blah.” The good thing about this Emergency Task Force, according to him, is that it will be about action, not words. He said he wants it to find measurable solutions to the problems of crime and addiction that result from poverty.
If we were to boil the plan down to a single word, it would be bullshit. It will be about words, not action. And it will not find any solutions, measurable or otherwise, to any problems faced by the working poor.
In the dictionary, an emergency is an unforeseen set of circumstances that demand immediate attention. This would be something like a flash flood, or an epidemic disease, or even climate change. But poverty? Drug addiction? Crime? These are urgent problems, but not unforeseen. They didn’t sneak up on us, take us by surprise, or side track us from other things we want to do.
Poverty has been part of our social fabric for at least the 175 years since Dickens wrote his novel. It’s hard to see it now as an emergency. If it’s getting worse these days, it’s because it is going through another cycle of neglect. Every so often we elect a government that builds a safety net to protect the vulnerable people among us. Then, when the net becomes too expensive and consumes too many tax dollars, we elect a government that will dismantle it. That’s where we are now.
Throughout this ebb and flow, through good times and bad, there have been a a few constants. First, poverty has always been with us. Second, the safety net isn’t designed to end poverty. It is intended to make it less harsh. Third, Conservative politicians have never done anything to fight poverty. Nothing. Diddly squat. Bugger all. Cam Guthrie is not going to be the first one. He gave a big shout out to his dedication to keeping taxes as low as possible.
More often than not, Conservatives are the ones called in to cut holes in the safety net. Not exclusively. Austerity is a non-partisan issue that flows across party lines. The only certainty is that when politicians talk about austerity they are not imagining their own lifestyles becoming more austere.
While I’m on the subject, I find it objectionable when poverty is directly linked to crime and addiction. Guthrie did this. He said: “Unfortunately, poverty and addictions can lead to crimes like break-ins and thefts.” Sure it can. It can also lead to making the best decisions possible under really shitty circumstances.
In my 72 years, I have seen lots of poverty. I’ve drifted in and out of it myself. The first people I ever knew who had experienced poverty up close were my parents. One came from the Gorbals borough in Glasgow. The other grew up in Shoreditch, London.
Jack London wrote about Shoreditch in his book The People of the Abyss. No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long told the story of life in the Gorbals. There were people in both communities who made bad decisions. Others made good ones.
They came to know that poverty is not a behaviour problem. It’s not a consequence of unlucky chance. It is a by-product of a political and economic system designed to make a few people rich, a lot of people poor, and a dwindling group in the middle who are reasonably comfortable.
Mayor Guthrie said he was appalled to see a tent city on York Road where homeless people sought shelter. He said it’s “unacceptable that we have people living like this in our community.” He’s right. It is. He could have done something about it during the last eight years, four when he was a councillor and four as mayor.
He could have made it a condition that a percentage of affordable housing is included in all new development projects approved by the city. He didn’t do it. He could have actively supported a provincial initiative to raise the minimum wage to $15. He didn’t. He could have voiced his opposition to Doug Ford’s cancellation of future increases to the minimum wage. He didn’t.
The mayor of a mid-level city like Guelph does not have the power to end poverty. That will only happen when the citizens of our country do what it takes to transform our economy away from capitalism toward something more humane and co-operative. The mayor can do something to lessen the effects of poverty but he won’t do it by hiring more police and setting up another hopeless and helpless task force.
When the Ghost of Christmas Present told Ebenezer Scrooge to beware of Ignorance, he wasn’t necessarily talking about the uneducated people of the abyss. To be sure, what they don’t know does hurt them but there’s another ignorance in play. There’s also the ignorance of politicians who hold the power yet refuse to use it to lift up the poor and downtrodden among us.
Maybe next Christmas the ghosts will leave Ebenezer asleep and take Cam out to see what the world is like.