Sunday, December 11, 2011

deflecting the reality of poverty

I've been thinking a lot about poverty lately. Specifically about food security issues in North America. With countries as vast and wealthy as the United States and Canada, how can it be that men, women and children still go hungry? But they do. My first spark of outrage came from the following quote by  US presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, as he proposed to drastically reduce funding for the food stamp program:

If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger program?

In other words, overweight people are healthy.  And the implication is also there - poor people do not take care of themselves. It's not about the affordability of nutritious food versus processed, packaged junk. Instead, Santorum confuses his audience by drawing an inaccurate correlation.

On my side of the border, the northern side, similar misinformation may be leading people to believe that there is no hunger problem, indeed there is no poverty problem in Ontario at all.

This article,
written by Margaret Wente and published in the Toronto Globe and Mail on December 10th 2011, is a fascinating look at how reality can be obscured with a few wordy twists.She uses statistics on  the availability of home appliances and technology to convince readers that the issues of poverty in this country are overstated. Wente airily dismisses the tragedy of Attawapiskat and the increasing number of food bank visits with a wave of her virtual hand. Of course, it's a shame that such pockets of poverty exist, she implies, but look at how the bottom 20 percent of the population are truly living:

" In Ontario, for example, 65 per cent of the bottom fifth of families by income have air conditioning. Seventy per cent have DVD players, 65 per cent have cable TV, 56 per cent have home computers and 98.9 per cent have colour TVs. (Thirty years ago, even the most affluent families had few, if any, of these things.)This steady rise in material well-being helps explains why the Occupy movement didn’t catch on as many people expected it to. On the whole, average people think their lives are pretty good. “They don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society,” writes Prof. Cowen."

What does she mean by the bottom fifth? She doesn't actually explain.

(And is someone in the bottom fifth an "average person?" I  believe I am an average person. I don't own my own home, I have some debt, a full time job, a car, and I am able to feed and clothe myself more than adequately...who is the average person? )

According to the Ontario Association of Food Banks, the median market income for households in Ontario with 2 or more persons was $67,500 in 2009. The Low Income Cut-Off for that same year was $25,414. 1.6 million people in Ontario live below that measure, out of a population of 13 000 000. I have no way of determining if Wente is referring to people who have income levels below that amount or not. But here is some useful information courtesy of a 2009 OAFB report:

  • 374,000 people in Ontario visited a food bank at least once in 2009. This represents about 2.9% of the population.
  • 6.5% of Ontarians were on social assistance in 2009
  • The average after-tax  monthly income of a person visiting a food bank was $1,321.
  • the average weekly food expenditure for those visitors was 70.99 per household, or 26.86 per person.
  • on average, food bank users spend 65% of their money on shelter and utilities
  • only 52.2% of food bank users live in households where everyone has a warm winter coat
  • 35.9% of users are under 16 years of age, 33% are new Canadians, and 51% are without necessary health care.
  • the child poverty rate in Ontario in 2009 was 15.2%
Something doesn't measure up with Wente's calculations. How are all these people, part of the bottom fifth, even remotely able to afford DVD players, colour TV's and home computers, let alone access to cable and internet. Oh, those 99% whiners, wanting to change the system when the affluence of our nation is available to even the lowest of the low!

I'm leaving statistics behind and getting personal.

22 years ago I was a single parent on welfare. And guess what! I had a colour TV. I even acquired a car before my daughter reached her first birthday. And there was no welfare fraud involved.

The television was a cast-off, given to me by my parents. The car, a 1981 Chevette, was acquired for less than 500 dollars from my brother so that I could transport myself to college and my child to day care without spending hours per day on the bus.

I admit, my first computer was harder to come by. I had to wait until my daughter was 10, and my teenage sister spent a year out of the country before I had a computer, or internet at home, even though I had been employed full time for several years by then.

So, did anyone ask those in the bottom fifth of income earners how those televisions, air conditioners and home computers  were acquired? Did they head off to the nearest electronics store and buy the newest plasma, or flat-screen TV? Did they pick up a bargain at Future Shop?

If they did, I'm guessing that credit,  Kijiji, home leasing programs, or a strict savings regimen could account for those purchases. But since nobody bothered to ask the real questions, I'm going to hazard a guess that many of those luxurious DVD players and televisions could have been acquired from a local thrift store.

The one behind my house sells them. You can get a TV for 35 bucks. It won't have a flat screen, but it;s guaranteed to work. Better yet, on any given garbage day, such items are free for the taking. Heck, there's even a TV up for grabs at my place, that I can't give away.

You see, while members of the bottom fifth - or more accurately the bottom tenth - are struggling to pay for food and rent with the same paycheque without going hungry or being evicted, the upper eighty percent - or forty percent - or twenty percent (I really am speculating as I have no reliable stats) of income earners are consuming and discarding their material goods at an alarming rate. We want the biggest and the brightest, we have the lines of credit that allow us to purchase the biggest and the brightest.  We are told that to keep our economy humming, we need to keep buying things. And so we leave our cast-off goods at the side of the road, knowing that someone will come along and pick them up. Failing that, we cart our old computers off to the thrift store, to avoid paying the hefty electronics disposal fee that most landfills impose.

Someone will want it. And so while homes are filling up with all those electronic goods, as if by magic, children in this province are still going hungry.

The article does make a point. We are better off than we were one hundred years ago, but does not satisfactorily explain why. We, in Canada have social welfare programs, as inadequate as they are, that offer income support to those who cannot work. Education is Ontario is mandatory to age 18. We have access to universal health care. There are government regulations in place that fortify certain food items with essential nutrients such as iron and Vitamin D, so that malnutrition has been greatly reduced.

Those programs came about as a result of government legislation. Intervention at the highest level, because people who cared about the most vulnerable in society were able to use their voices and create change in this country.  Sadly, there will always be misinformation, media articles that mislead or obfuscate the truth. But there is hope, in the form of social protest, because those who are marginalized and vulnerable, more than ever, need people to speak with them, and for them, in order to create a better future. Poverty has not been eradicated in this province. And while many of us live in luxury, especially when we compare ourselves to people in developing nations,  a 6.5% poverty rate, is too high.

We can do better.


Eastcoastdweller said...

It is truly sad, that there is plenty of food in the world, our stores are piled high with it, our restaurants throw it out by the ton every night, and yet people still go hungry.

Laura Lee said...

there is an activity here in Seattle where lots of people - not even extremely poor - are finding dumpsters outside certain food stores that have "perfectly good food," they say, that is not overdue or been opened in any way. There is even a list of these places circulated by word of mouth, and is quite popular in an underground sort of way. I've not tried it, and don't know if I could bring myself to it.