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Blaming the Weatherman

January 26, 2014

While in Winnipeg I had an experience that won’t leave my mind.  I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, having a hot chocolate while I waited for the library at the other end of the mall to open.  At the table behind me sat a man who was obviously homeless, sipping on what appeared to be a large Café Mocha and perusing the local rag.  Eventually he got up to leave and a waitress came over to clean the table.  As she did, she engaged me in conversation.

She asked if I hadn’t noticed the guy smelled bad.  I replied that I had.  “Why didn’t he shower and wash his clothes?”  I suggested we were a long way from the nearest shelter, and that in such cold weather there might not be any beds left.  It was too far to walk at these temperatures, so he would have to take a bus, and he might not be comfortable doing so on account of the reaction he would likely get from other passengers.  As to washing his clothes, what was he to do—stand naked in a laundromat (assuming he had the several dollars for the machines and for detergent) watching his entire wardrobe spinning in the washer? 

She went on to say the guy had been there all night.  I commented he was likely just trying to stay warm over a -35°C night, and that she and the other staff had been very gracious in not asking him to leave.  The look on her face told me her graciousness was probably rooted in fear.  Holding up the cup from which he had been drinking, the waitress pointed out he had purchased a large premium coffee.  Clearly poor people were not entitled to such luxuries.  I thought how often I myself in lean times had used money better spent on essentials to give myself a treat.  For this man a Café Mocha was what he needed at the time.

The waitress seemed to be a very nice person.  But her attitude toward the homeless man most certainly stemmed from ignorance, simply not having had the experience of being very poor or knowing anyone who was. 

That I believe is the problem with most people’s ideas about the poor.  Those who “have” seldom if ever associate with “have nots.“ Most people simply have no personal reference, and so must depend on information provided by others to form opinions.  Unfortunately it has become popular to “poor bash,” and what I far too often hear is a portrayal of the poor as being personally responsible for their own plight, as being parasites, lacking motivation and ambition, unworthy, lazy, likely addicted, potentially criminal and a threat to social stability. 

I have had the “advantage” of spending a good deal of my life in contact the poor and having been poor myself at times.  Therefore I can relate to the stress, the humiliation, the isolation, the helplessness and the occasional outright terror poverty entails.

I was going to relate a story about a time I saw no other option but to seek social assistance to feed my children.  It was a very temporary situation, but the experience was so mortifying, and the treatment I received from those at social services was so condescending, so judgmental and so disparaging that apparently I have blocked out many of the relevant details.  Trying to dredge up the experience just evoked the humiliation, the anger and the shame.  There was absolutely no understanding, no compassion, no humanity.  The message was clear:  in the eyes of the person on the other side of the desk, I was worthless.

Babara Ehrenreich, author and social activist who has been called “a veteran muckraker,” among other things, wrote, “To live in poverty is to live with constant uncertainty, to accept galling indignities, and to expect harassment by the police, welfare officials and employers, as well as by others who are poor and desperate.”

One of the indignities that to my ears is on the rise is “poor bashing.”  In her book Poor-Bashing: The Politics of Exclusion, Jean Swanson, longtime worker among the people of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (Canada’s poorest postal code until recent gentrification started pushing the poor out) defines poor bashing as ignoring facts about poverty and repeating stereotypes of the poor. In Jean’s words,

“poor bashing is when people who are poor are humiliated, stereotyped, discriminated against, threatened, shunned, despised, pitied, patronized, ignored, blamed, and falsely accused of being lazy, drunk, stupid, uneducated, having large families and not looking for work.”

Times are tough for a lot of people.  Descent jobs seem to be getting scarcer and scarcer.  The price of everything is rising while wages have stagnated for thirty years.  Two income households are having difficulty making ends meet.  Last September Statistics Canada reported that the average Canadian owes $1.63 for every dollar they earn.  For a lot of people the situation breeds uncertainty and fear.  Fearful people look for someone to blame, and poor people are an easy target.  Many don’t stop to consider that the poor are just the weathermen as it were, not the cause of the economic low-pressure system that is bringing storms into their lives.  And so the vitriol begins.

Poor bashing is a system of control by the powerful.  It has developed a language of its own, language that disguises the real sources of poverty and avoids analysis of the problem.  It hurts and disenfranchises people who are poor and cheapens the labour of people who have jobs. Streams of invective from the tabloid media fuel fear of and hatred toward a powerless minority, turn person against person, and take the pressure off the rich.  The exaggerated stereotypes perpetuate ongoing prejudice and discrimination against the poor that are reflected in inadequate government social policies to help address poverty, typified by the setting of income security rates, such as social assistance, far below the poverty line.

The truth is that the economic system under which we live NEEDS the poor.  They serve as a reserve labour force and also serve to keep wages down.  How many time have I heard, “Just be grateful you have a job” or “There are plenty of people out there who would love to have your job”?  Without the “people out there” the threat is hollow.  I remember during the 60’s when the unemployment rate in Canada was just over 4%.  Employers had to treat their employees well or they wouldn’t have them.  But, a little tinkering with the system and by the early 80’s the rate was up to a very useful 13%.  Today, Statistics Canada pegs it at around 7%, but that figure is a distortion.  One in four people are involuntarily working part-time and 13% are in temporary positions.

In a Globe and Mail article entitled Why part-time work may be the new normal, Linda Nazareth wrote,  

“The other, darker, answer to when involuntary part-time employment will fall is ‘never, more or less’. That answer suggests that there has been a permanent shift in the way that business is done and that companies are comfortable with keeping costs down by employing as many people as possible on a part-time basis. Part-time workers can be added or subtracted much more easily than full-time employees, and are much cheaper in terms of benefits. For some industries at least, it may be a business model that suits the post-recession world.”

Poverty is good for business.  Commenting on interest rates being on hold at 1%, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney noted that “we are still in a position where there are more Canadians who want to work than are working, and the level of involuntary part-time (workers) is still elevated.”

Poor bashing is not limited to the developed world.  I hear many people blaming Haitians for their poverty, Africans for their dire straits.  But I see with my own eyes that people here work very hard, long days for a couple of dollars, working for multinational companies making products not for their Haitians, but for export to us so that Haiti can pay off its enormous debts to the developed world.  Nothing has changed since Haiti won her independence; Haitians shook of the chains of de facto slavery only to be forced into economic slavery.  And so the poverty cycle continues.  In other words, despite the howls of denial from many, they’re poor because of us.

Poverty benefits us by making what we put in our shopping carts cheaper.  But it is costing every individual Canadian (that’s every man, woman and child) over $2000 annually, as well as keeping incomes down.  But don’t vent your spleen on Canada’s 3.4 million poor; they are not to blame.  Instead take a gander at the other end of the economic spectrum where the top-earning 1% of Canadians have almost doubled the size of their slice of national income pie from 7.7% to 13.8% over the past 3 decades.  Do you see any bad weather there?  As Zimmy sang, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

If we have any courage, we’ll stop bashing our powerless neighbour and stand with him to fight for justice that rolls on like a river, rather than just an end to poverty.

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