Poverty is not an emergency

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.


  1. Poverty is worthless
    Guest Editorial, The Review, February 2018
    Volunteers who put together food and toy drives in their communities, then from it all create welcome Christmas baskets for those in need, deserve profound community gratitude. Inevitably, these are the same brave volunteers who metaphorically beg, borrow and steal to keep food banks stocked throughout the year. Food insecurity is entrenched in Canadian society, and the one constant answer is reliance on the unpredictable kindness of hand-outs. Can the ongoing Ontario experiment in providing a basic income change that?
    Canadians demonstrate time and again that they want a level playing field for all when it comes to key services. As an example, within the first few years of settlement, local residents decided to pool resources to look after roads. Local and provincial taxes are pooled to ensure education through the high school level. Canada pension support for seniors began in the 1920s then expanded in the 60s and 70s. In the 1940s thin provincial income support, known as welfare, began for those with little to no income. Some 50 years ago Canadians agreed to pool resources to look after health, and in 1997 Ontario adopted legislation to financially assist the disabled.
    A common response to calls to end poverty is that earlier generations ‘pulled themselves up by their own boot straps.’ No doubt some did, and some still do today. But it wasn’t, nor is it, always possible. Pre-1940s, with no social programmes, the desperate had to beg at churches and to municipal councillors. Municipal minute books of the 19th and early 20th centuries contain lists of residents who received vouchers for controlled amounts of firewood and food at the general store; in later years the vouchers were replaced by meagre funds.
    Poverty thrives on instability. This is the 21st century, and instead of a fulsome response to poverty, there is reliance on food banks. From the 2016 Census, Statistics Canada calculated that the 2015 average income for “all low income family types” was $15,880. For an example closer to home, a Christmas basket went to a single parent family with two children relying on a disability pension income of $9,900. Poverty enjoys anonymity until Christmas when thoughts turn to children.
    Poverty takes disruptive aim at extended families. One food bank volunteer pointed out from their long experience on the front line that, “the strain of financial and emotional support on parents, families and friends is considerable especially when the support network is getting older and many are on fixed incomes which have diminishing values.”
    Pooling taxes to tackle needed services is not a perfect answer. Potholes inspire cursing, schools use endless chocolate sales to raise funds to supplement learning, community bake sales with their squares and cookies support critical disease research. Still, the foundations of those pooled services are reliably at work every day.
    The goal of the three-year Ontario basic income project for people on low incomes is to “test whether a basic income can better support vulnerable workers,” and bring improvements to “food security, stress and anxiety, mental health, health and healthcare usage, housing stability, education and training, employment and labour market participation.” At long last, the stand against poverty as a singular entity has begun. Why? Because poverty is worthless.

  2. Well done. Thanks.

  3. This is such an accurate portrayal of what is not good here in Guelph and everywhere. God preserve me from the people who talk the talk but can’t or won’t actually do the walk. My Nonna had a name for these people – pew kissers. Those who faithfully went to church every week, but forgot, or didn’t want, to put their faith into action. While they had little, she shared from the bounty of her gardens with those who had less. All comes down to selfishness no matter when or where we keep the “other” safely away from society. Thanks for writing Alan.

  4. Hear. Hear. Exactly on point.

  5. Thank you Alan. Well put in every regard.

  6. people no longer care about anyone or anything that does not effect them. none of us chooses to struggle and live in poverty l would love to see more government workers have to live for 3 mths on what they figure ow or odsp people should have to make due with….might change their way of thinking

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