The answer to poverty isn’t simple

Diane Dyson works in her office at WoodGreen, a United Way member agency prioviding multi-service support to the community.

The answer to poverty seems simple. “Get a job,” we say. “Get a haircut – Get an attitude adjustment!”

Oh, if it were so simple…

Incentives to join the workforce can be pretty darn small. The changing shape of the labour market has created dead-end, low wage jobs where even those who work full-time are still poor. Reports like John Stapleton’s The Working Poor show low-income earners work just as hard as many of us while earning far less. An upcoming report from United Way is looking at how precarious so many jobs are, too.

In recent years, we’ve learned opportunities to succeed are not spread evenly across our city. From United Way’s 2002 report, Decade of Decline, through its 2004 report Poverty by Postal Code and the Strong Neighbourhoods Taskforce, to David Hulchanski’s more recent analysis of The Three Cities, the idea of neighbourhood inequality is well documented in Toronto. Some neighbourhoods have high levels of need and low levels of service; while others have abundant health and social services and good life outcomes. People who live in these different neighbourhoods live in worlds apart from us, and from each other, divided by income, jobs, housing type, access to transportation, and wider social networks. Increasingly too, we are all divided by race, family structures or educational backgrounds.

Piles of other reports show how being low income means it is harder to buy healthy food, find affordable housing, go to a well-resourced school, use local services, or simply live in a safe neighbourhood. In fact, the concentration of all these things deepens poverty, making it even more difficult to move out of.

In his book The Persistence of Poverty, philosopher Charles Karelis described poverty as being like getting stung by wasps. Most of us would use a bit of salve for the sting and move on. People who are poor, however, are “stung” a lot more, stung by these layers of need, and, with only a little ointment, often don’t do the seemingly sensible thing because the hurt won’t stop. Karelis goes on to describe how an “irrational” choice, such as buying an expensive TV or dropping out of school, sometimes might make the most sense. When someone is seeking relief from a situation, they look for the quickest, most available remedy. “Give me a drink, anything, it doesn’t matter” cries the thirsty soul, and then they drink.

The bald truth is that poverty is harsh – and difficult to solve.

So how can we eliminate poverty? We must answer these various needs at the same time.

The recent report from the Ontario Social Assistance Review, led by Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, has thankfully recommended removing further disincentives to employment by extending health benefits to all working poor. Places like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives point to the United Kingdom which talks about a “living wage” instead of a minimum wage. The Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty convenes diverse partners to solve the problems in their city, and United Way Toronto and the City have Strong Neighbourhood strategies. Other good thinking is going on.

Here’s a home-grown example from the frontlines:

In 2004, WoodGreen Community Services, where I work, piloted Homeward Bound, one of the most innovative, effective programs in Canada that works to move single mothers out of poverty. Many of the women worked in minimum wage jobs with no hope for advancement. All of them have lived in a shelter, been homeless or unstably housed. These are women without access to any opportunities – for themselves or their children. By accessing WoodGreen’s wrap-around, on-site supports like childcare, housing, counselling, education and training, the women finish a two-year tuition-paid college diploma and begin work placements that let them develop new networks, gain work experience and ultimately start their careers. More than 150 women and 180 children have lived at Homeward Bound’s east end campus. Graduates are now working in stable roles for blue-chip organizations including banks, technology firms and more.

This is the sort of program your United Way donation funds.

Imagine a city where there is no poverty?

Imagine the possibility!

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  1. Pingback: Why are poor people poor? | Belonging Community

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