Three Faces of Poverty: Who are the poor?

Looking back over the past few weeks of anti-poverty posts, I have thoughts.

On one hand I’m impressed with the thought and effort that has gone into the various poverty reduction strategies. A lot of very smart people have been working very hard to fight poverty, which is great. On the other hand, I find myself wondering why some things haven’t happened.

For example, a group of anti-poverty activists recently called on the Ontario government to raise the minimum wage to $14/hour. The government responded by announcing that they were increasing the minimum wage to $11 (from $10.25). This is better than nothing, but a 75 cent/hour raise is hardly a dramatic change in your standard of living (an extra $30/week for full-time workers). Recent increases in social assistance rates are also better than nothing, but a single adult in Ontario is still expected to make do on the princely sum of $626/month. This would be a very generous stipend for a cat but is hardly enough to support even the most frugal human. Similarly some very punitive rules about savings, assets, and extra income have been relaxed (for example, you are no longer expected to completely drain your retirement savings before you get any benefits; you’re allowed to keep a few thousand dollars). Left untouched is the assumption that social assistance claimants are at best feckless and irresponsible and at worst out to cheat the system.

It seems to me that at the heart of the question “How do we eliminate poverty from Canada?” is another question: “Who are the poor?” And the answer at the heart of the various poverty reduction strategies seems to be incomplete.

Back in December I wrote about Women Speak Out and the dreams of the poor:

In North America, discourse around poverty either paints the poor as helpless victims of their situation/bad upbringing/heredity or as stupid losers who don’t deserve anything better. There is little acknowledgement that poor people deserve anything more than the most basic of assistance, and almost none that poor people might have anything of value to contribute to the world.

I think that people often see poverty as an character trait rather than a social location. I also think that this is totally wrong. There is nothing essential about poverty – it is where you’re at rather than who you are, and it is something that can happen to anyone under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

To answer my own question, “Who are the poor?”, all I can say is that the poor are people who don’t have very much money and are stigmatized to varying degrees for their lack of wealth. That’s not to say that some groups of people are more likely to be poor than others – single parents, people of colour, recent immigrants, and people with disabilities all experience much higher rates of poverty than the Canadian average – but I think this has much more to do with how our society fails to support parenting, fails to deal with its toxic load of racism and prejudice, fails to offer fair opportunities to the immigrants it invites, and fails to create an accessible and safe world for people with disabilities than with any intrinsic characteristics of these groups.

I don’t wish to put down the real and laudable anti-poverty efforts of the governments and community groups of Canada. Valuable work is being done, and many vulnerable people are being supported as they work to improve their lives. But any poverty reduction strategy that doesn’t address the very real inequalities of our world is never going to fully succeed.

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2 thoughts on “Three Faces of Poverty: Who are the poor?

  1. Examining minimum wage has been a big issue worldwide. It was part of the German election, it is being discussed in Canada more now, and here in the US also. For about 23 years, the Federal minimum wage for restaurant servers has been $2.13, thus the dependence on tips.

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