Category Archives: Income Inequality

LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Note:  In addition to writing about community change and penning commentary, I am a story teller. I write fiction and spoken word. This piece is a mix of fact and fiction, often called “faction.”

One of my small luxuries in life is having someone come to my house weekly and clean it. I tell myself I need this service because I am so busy, but truth is it’s a luxury for me. I can afford it and to be honest I have the time to take care of my own mess; I just hate doing it.

Karen is the one who takes care of this for me. She is 24 and nearly always cheerful. She does an excellent job and in good time as well.  She is a friend of a friend and when I heard she was interested in providing this service, I decided to give her a go.

When I asked her what she charged, she asked if $15 per hour would be okay. I had two reactions to her question. One had to do with her proposal representing a great deal. If I were a business I might have equated her wage request as a way of minimizing the cost of her labour on my bottom line.

But I am not a business. I am just a guy who dislikes doing his own housework. My second reaction was the stronger of the two. I told her I would pay her $25 per hour. In my mind, anything less seemed, not enough. I was asking her to clean up after me, wash floors and tackle the mess of bathrooms.

Karen wasn’t yet 21 when she gave birth to her daughter, Millie. Neither she nor her boyfriend, the father, wanted to get married. In fact, I got the impression Karen was close to breaking things off when she found out she was pregnant. He was a decent enough guy, she told me, but they really didn’t click enough to see a future together.

Shortly after Millie was born, Karen applied for an apartment through the city’s Subsidized Housing Program, which bases rent on income. She wasn’t making much money and couldn’t afford a place on her own.  Despite having a high school education, she couldn’t find a decent paying full time job. So, she ended up working retail or at fast food places, none of which provided full-time hours, much less a living wage. And, to boot, none of the jobs she found offered benefits.

Please don’t slide over the obvious here. Let’s remind ourselves that businesses do this on purpose and with purpose. The structure their workforce to avoid providing benefits to their employees. One of these employees is Karen. She is smart enough to know what was really going on. She told me once, “I am just a commodity.”

Five words that offer a simple yet brilliant analysis of how the power of wealth and the addiction to wanting more has stripped away workers’ humanity. I wanted to tell her I was going to quote her in a story or a blog posting, but I checked myself. Continue reading LIVING POOR: KAREN’S STORY

Mandatory Winter Tires and Poverty

Yes, perhaps an odd title for a posting, but bear with me. I was on my way back home from meeting downtown with Alberta Government colleagues who also work in the poverty reduction arena and I heard this call-in show about winter tires and more to the point about whether or not winter tires should be mandatory.

They are in Quebec now but even in some provinces without a mandatory requirement more than 80% of drivers have winter tires. Not so in Alberta where the percentage is just over 50%. Not sure about other low percentage provinces, but here is what went through my mind.

The folks that called in didn’t all agree, but I got the impression that most were for making it a legal requirement to have winter tires and my impression of the radio interviewer and guest was that they were biased toward mandatory winter tires. I get that. It makes sense, right, that all of us would require one another to do this. It’s safer. Winter tires stop a car better than all season tires.

I have never owned winter tires but could afford them if I chose to buy them or was required to, though being forced to dole out $1,000 for a new set of tires and then pay more for rims and the ongoing costs of changing and balancing each season – well, the “Albertan” in me just doesn’t want to be forced to do that.

But all of the above is not really why I wrote this post.

While I was listening to the radio show, it hit me that this radio engagement of citizens around winter tires was one more example of how a certain segment of the population is marginalized, not really considered, and in a sense relegated once again to second-class citizen. Continue reading Mandatory Winter Tires and Poverty

I am angry about poverty

As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality
persist in our world, none of us can truly rest.
– Nelson Mandela                        

I have been doing research for a keynote I am doing next month on the socio-economics of poverty.  I am speaking in Revelstoke, so I took a look at the welfare rates in British Columbia.

There, if you are a single person deemed employable your income support “benefit” is $605 per month and the government’s website indicates this has been the rate since 2007.

To be clear, that’s the total. It’s broken down into two segments: $375 for rent and $230 for food (and everything else). It’s not clear to me if a single employable person also gets a bus pass over and above that amount, but I am hedging my bets against it.

If you are single parent with two young children, the benefit is $660 for rent and $401.16 for everything else. That’s just over a grand for three people, which I found disconcerting to say the least, but you know what? That 16 cents made me angry.

I imagine there is a formula used to figure all of this out and that the powers that be didn’t want to round the number off. Perhaps they felt that a single parent and her two kids should get every penny coming of what can’t come close to supporting them. It felt like a slap in the face.

I won’t go through the motions here of comparing these benefits to the cost of housing and food, clothing, and household incidentals. We have done math like that for as long as I can remember and despite our analysis, people still are suffering from what I call “our ”economic indifference.”

The indifference has its excuses: Governments can’t afford paying any more. Poor people are lazy. She should have not gotten pregnant so young. It’s his fault; he’s an ex-con. Oh yeh, there’s the “drunk Indian” expecting “another hand-out” and they should have stayed in their own country. Why should I have to pay taxes so they can just lay about.

Yep, lay about on $605 per month.

We don’t want people to receive so much money, they just live off the taxpayer and don’t look for a job. Let’s give them far less than it costs to live.

Sure, that will motivate them.

I know. I am being sarcastic. Venting a bit as well.

I swear I could write an excellent, professional brief on how the welfare rates in British Columbia (and in every other province most likely) perpetuate poverty and despair. I could point out how many rules and hoops one has to navigate is not only unnecessary, but also demoralizing, inhumane. But not now. I will save that stuff for my speech.

Right now, I am just angry. Angry about poverty and its myriad systems, rules, and formulas. So angry that I don’t know what to do.

Do you ever feel that way?

Not just sad, but angry. Angry that poverty exists.

Perhaps this anger resides on the extreme end of my compassion for people. Perhaps it is that feeling one gets when a loved one is harmed by another.

I wrote this because I needed to accept this emotion, welcome it as one might an unwanted visitor, tentative but open to what may be possible.

I am angry about poverty and about our many “solutions” that are from what that word means.

I also wrote this because I have to believe you get angry, too.

And I wanted you to know: you are not alone.

 

A very short treatise on the wealth gap

Pretend.

There are 300 people in the world.

180 are workers.

The rest are children, seniors, and stay at home parents.

The economy generates $5 million per year in wealth.

That averages $27,777 per worker.

However…

90% of the wealth is owned by 20% of workers.

In other words…

36 of the 180 own $4.5 million of the $5 million in wealth.

The remaining 144 workers divide up the $.5 million.

I don’t really need to give you comparative averages, right?

Yes, I understand economics might be a tad more complicated than represented here in my short treatise on the wealth-gap; however, I am just trying to point at something that is rather disconcerting, not prove a theory.

Of course many will say that wealth of the few benefits everyone, that the economy requires this kind of divide. But this is not about a few providing benefits to a whole bunch of the rest of us.

It’s about living and expecting that our economy actually is ours, equitably.

Okay, you can stop pretending now.

How to End Poverty

You might expect a post by this title would include narrative about income, jobs, housing, child care, transportation, education, health services and so on. It is true we need to address these areas (and more!) if we are to end poverty. But the challenges we face are less about the actions above and the barriers we face in terms of resources.

We are the challenge. And by that I also mean we are the barrier to what we claim we want to do.

And who is “we”? Honestly, those of us who are not poor are the challenge we must address to end poverty.

I imagine some of you might wonder, “Hey what about poor people? “Aren’t they the reason why they are poor and disadvantaged?”

Of course there are poor people who have contributed to their own suffering. Sure, there are poor people who have made or still are making bad decisions.

This posting is not about excusing the poor from participating in their own solutions.

It’s about not excusing ourselves – the rest of us who have enough, often more than enough, sometimes such excess that the juxtaposition of opulence to poverty is unnerving. Continue reading How to End Poverty