IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

As some of you may know, I often open and close Tamarack gatherings with original music. Some years ago I wrote The Truth We Find in All that We Deny and since then have performed it numerous times around the country. You can listen to a version of it HERE. That simple song is about how often the truth is found in what we turn away from, found in what we step around or deny.

I was going to perform it again this year at Tamarack’s Poverty Reduction Summit in Hamilton, which just took place April 4 to 6, but a few weeks before the gathering I told myself I should write a new song for the closing. Telling myself I should write a new song was easy. Actually writing one was a tad harder. In fact, by the weekend just prior to the Summit, I had yet to even attempt a new song.

In addition to being quite pre-occupied with getting everything done for the Summit, I had picked up a book I had read sometime ago by Adam Kahane called Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Inspired by the work of Martin Luther King Jr., the gist of Kahane’s book is that love is not enough to change the world and the power on its own is a dangerous creature. The quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that I heard Kahane quote during a talk I was present for provides the thesis for the book:

“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

I had been mulling over that quote, thinking about how power and love can and should relate to the work I am doing with Vibrant Communities Canada. I was also thinking about Truth and Reconciliation and how the opportunities it provides will only stand a chance of coming to fruition if power and love are married together to produce the justice referred to by King. I wasn’t connecting all of this to a song by the way.

Because my mind meanders, in the midst of all of this, I recalled listening to a gentleman on a video somewhere talk about empathy — in particular how it is over-rated and often is an expression that accomplishes little or nothing. When someone clicks LIKE on a Face Book posting about a hungry child or about homeless people, that action is often the entirety of the person’s action on the matter. It’s like saying, “Oh, that’s a shame” or “I feel for him or her or you.” I am not saying people who express empathy this way are not genuine in their expression, but if empathy’s stature is limited to a simple click of the mouse or words that we leave behind as we move on to the next thing, what has such empathy accomplished? It becomes little more than a vicarious experience of feeling what someone else is feeling – or what we think that person is feeling and going through.

Empathy should mean more than that, shouldn’t it? Feeling the suffering of others and then moving on ends up having empathy being more self-serving, I think.

So on Saturday, three days before the Summit, I was sitting in my living room strumming on my dulcitar and playing around with a new melody. This is how I write music. I search for a melody and then I start humming or even mumbling words as I play. It’s kind of like free writing, which is a tool writers use to find a way through writer’s block.

While I could say my process has to do with creating lyrics for the melody, in reality I think the lyrics are already there, waiting for me to recognize them. It took about an hour for that to happen. The lyrics were rough, not yet complete enough for a song, but the foundation was there and on Sunday I returned to the sketch of a song that had found me and the song happened.

All of the thinking I had been doing about power and love, Truth and Reconciliation, and empathy had converged and then tapped me on the shoulder, as if to say, “Hey Mark, here you go. Here is your closing song.”

I don’t have a recording to share of this new song, but I do have the lyrics. Amazingly as I was singing this song before a couple of hundred people, the lyrics kept changing right there as I was performing.  For what it’s worth, here are the (current) final lyrics.

IF WE WANT TO CHANGE THE WORLD

Do you ever think about tomorrow?
Ever wonder what is waiting over there?
Will there just be more suffering and sorrow
Or will love show up and really care?

We need to do more than empathize
and then walk away if we want to change the world.

How can we do what really matters?
How can we move through what’s in our way?
And when we discover we are the obstacle
Will we help one another change?

We need to do more than empathize
and then walk away if we want to change the world.

Change requires love and power together.
Each one is not sufficient on their own
To carry truth and reconciliation
Into every heart and every home.

We need to do more than empathize
and then close the door if we want to change the world.

Power without love is self-serving.
Love without power: It’s just a Hallmark card.
We need both of them to marry
So their child Justice can be born.

We need to do more than empathize
And then walk away.
We need to do more than empathize
And then close the door
If we want to change the world.

Do you ever think about tomorrow
And what we should be creating over there?
copyright 2017 Mark Holmgren

More about the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction

As some of you know, I have written about and I am continuing to work on what I call a Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation. You can read my initial paper HERE. And a recording of a webinar I did with Mark Cabaj is HERE.

I have been asked about the difference between Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) and this game-changer approach I am working on with my colleagues at Vibrant Communities Canada. The game-changers we have identified are Housing, Transportation, Education, Health, Income and Jobs, Food Security, Financial Empowerment, and Early Childhood Development. All of these are aligned with SDoH, but there is, I suggest, more to what we are exploring than social determinants of health.yes-and-no

The Game-Changer Approach also is stressing the importance of avoiding the creation of “thin” strategies among a host of other “thin” strategies that, in effect, can lead to an overall poverty reduction strategy that is a mile wide and an inch deep.

The notion of prioritizing our efforts is one that is often accepted as necessary but in practice not emphasized. One of the fundamental tenets of the Game-Changer Approach to Poverty Reduction Strategy and Evaluation is rooted in an old Taoist saying, For every yes there is a no. Continue reading

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

Signals of Coming Disruption

Big change doesn’t just click on. It occurs over time, starting out often as weak signals of the change to come. Sometimes it’s like the old frog in the boiling water story. Put the frog in when the water is cool and turn up the flame and eventually the frog realizes its plight, just too late to adjust, to escape.

For years, donor giving has been changing. Charities have become increasingly dependent on larger gifts from fewer donors. As the economy has served to increase the income and wealth gap between the small numbers of wealthy and the rest of everyone else, we have seen food bank use escalate and a growing number of workers living pay check to pay check. Job security is no longer a reasonable expectation for a growing number of people, much less the chance for advancement. Employee supported pensions are no longer the norm and health and dental benefits are harder to come by for low income workers and many who do not yet qualify as “low income” workforce members.

imagenoise_signalmlab2The adaptations charities have taken have been focused on how to grow revenues through different sources of revenues. Funders are looking at alternatives too, given their inability to fund all the good things that come their way. Crowdfunding, social enterprise, impact investing, social purpose businesses are among the more recent options in financing social good.

GDP growth has been slowing, 80% of Canadian incomes are not increasing or if they are, at far less a rate, the restructuring of the job market is creating more insecure and benefit-less employment. the ratio of workers to seniors is dramatically decreasing. Key drivers like oil prices are in turmoil. Consumer debt keeps increasing. The numbers of people making $15 or less are growing as businesses work harder to cut back on expenses in order to feed more profits to investors. Continue reading

Income Trends and Canadian Consumer Debt

Over the past 15 years Canadian consumer debt has risen dramatically.  Since 2000, the percentage of Canadian debt in relationship to disposable income has risen from 110% of income to about 165%. The change in debt to income ratio represents a 12 year increase of 50%.

Income to Debt

The old adage about “people should live within their means” has validity no doubt in many cases, but such maxims simplify the complexity of economic influences and impacts and in this case categorically blame individuals for their debt problems. It’s akin to telling people living in poverty to just buck up and get a job. Stop being lazy and all of that.

Does rising debt have a correlation to slow if any growth in income for Canadian workers? The chart that follows tells a disconcerting story about after tax income in Canada by three cohorts: the top 20% of earners, the middle 60%, and the bottom 20%.  The chart goes back much further in time than the chart above and ends in 2011, but the trends are very clear.

incometrends2

From 1976 the trend in after tax income growth was about the same for all cohorts. In the latter 1990s, however, things changed. Income for the top 20% has escalated quite markedly since then, whereas income growth for the 60% middle earners and the bottom 20% have been small at best.

As the majority of Canadians have experienced flat to very small growth income over the years, they have also experienced far more growth in the expenditures required to house themselves, feed and clothe their families, and so on.

In Edmonton, where I live, the cost of rental accommodations increased on average by 75% between 2000 and 2010. Incomes for the large majority of city residents did not experience such gains. Add rising costs of food over that same period of about 5% per year on average, and the income to expense challenges are obvious.

pullquote1The more one spends to survive, the less likely it is that they will save for a rainy day, much less for retirement or even a short vacation. This contraction on disposable income creates vulnerability for people. When faced with a family emergency or job loss, even job loss for a short period of time, the options are few. Using one’s credit cards are among the few options available.

The Canadian Payroll Association has done annual surveys for a number of years and each year the results indicate that between 45 to 50% of Canadian workers are living pay cheque to pay cheque. The loss of a job to them would, according to the Association, result in serious threats to maintaining their housing. This suggests that half of Canadian workers, while not necessarily qualifying as living below the poverty line while employed, are economically vulnerable to disaster should their pay cheques be lost or interrupted, even for a short period of time.

There are other life experiences that lead to unmanageable levels of consumer debt. Divorce plays a role for many, in particular women who leave the relationship with children to care for, and all too often insufficient, if any, child support. Add to this that the majority of women earn less income than men and we end up with single parents financing their transition from marriage to single parenthood with debt.

Health problems can exacerbate debt as well. Temporary absences from work for surgery, for example, plus recovery time add to the fray. Even those with health and short term disability benefits experience reductions in income during those periods of time. And those without any such benefits are left without any supports from their employer. In Ontario, for example, one-third of workers do not have extended health and dental benefits, according to the Wesley Institute.

Of course debt problems are also caused or at least magnified by a lack in money management skills and other aspects of financial illiteracy. Increasing knowledge and skill about money should be attended to, but to think financial illiteracy is a panacea answer would be both impractical and irresponsible.

Rising consumer debt is not just an economic problem in and of itself. It is part of an overall pattern of systems and values that work to keep worker costs as low as possible to order to drive up margins and that fosters and sustains discriminatory practices that stymie participation in the economy by women,  visible minorities, Indigenous people, the disabled, as well as older and younger workers.

As a general rule unemployment rates and levels of income are higher in the former and lower in the latter for these populations. How come? Do we really believe that such populations do not measure up to the mainstream of the workforce in terms of skills, experience, and work ethic?

There is an irony in all of this. While there is a tendency to blame individuals for accumulating unmanageable debt, our economy is based on growing profits and to do so products and services are pervasively and unrelentingly marketed to grow sales. Persuasive advertising is fundamental to such growth in profits and it tends to work, resulting in too many people purchasing what they want more so than limiting themselves to what they need. In other words, one could argue that we are happy when a sale is made but then critical of those who grow their debt because the advertising worked.

We are seeing progress in addressing some of the factors mentioned above. There is a growing and welcome trend across the nation around employers paying a living wage. For many workers, especially those that have employer-based health and dental benefits, this will make a difference. Paying a living wage is connected to paying a fair wage, but on its own the living wage movement is a partial answer. For example, the cost of living for a single mother with two young children will more times than not be far greater than an increase in income brought about by a living wage.

If we want to turn the tide on economic vulnerability and poverty in Canada, we need to act on the income problem systemically. Child Tax Credit payments are helping and do lift many out of poverty, but for too many the transfers are insufficient.

Canada’s universal health care system is not really universal. For example, unlike many if not most countries with universal health care, we lack a national pharma benefit. Without employer-based benefits, the cost of medications can mean that Canadians are not able to buy them, which eventually leads to higher public expenditures on hospitalization for acute and chronic care. Add to this mix the dramatic trends in length of life, one has to wonder how a rapidly growing number of senior citizens living into their 80’s will be able to manage their health care costs without a pharma plan.

pullquote2Tax reform has a place in the changes we need to make, but on its own is not the answer either. While it seems reasonable for the super-rich to pay more taxes and have less access to opportunities to avoid taxation, the bigger challenge has to do with how governments see priorities, how they decide to spend our money. Systems change that doesn’t address this will be hard pressed to effect substantive change.

Attitudes and values need to be assessed as well. There is an emerging movement to consider human rights in our economic and social decision making. If in a democracy we believe people should be treated equally and have at least equitable opportunities to participate in the economy and in social living, what are the human rights that should guide decision-making?

Our systems appear to place more value on those who are working and doing well than on others who are struggling or who for a variety of reasons cannot work at all (e.g. the mentally ill). While there is a general acceptance that governments should provide income security programs for those who are between jobs or who can’t work at all, there is little, if any, justification for the inadequate financial benefits these income security programs provide. Across the country, at least from what my own research has uncovered, income security benefits do not come close to what it costs to be alive in Canada.

There is encouragement to be found in governments that are exploring a Guaranteed Minimum Annual Income as well as adopting living wage policies and practices in their own shops, but if we carry the same sentiments that keep current benefits far lower than what is reasonable, then I fear a GMAI, for example, will fall far short of the mark. Program changes unaccompanied by a shift in values will at best produce inadequate progress.

While there is a growing understanding that poverty is not just about money, let’s be careful that we don’t step away from the undeniable impact that a lack of income has on people’s lives. The millions of Canadians living on low and unstable incomes may benefit from more social inclusion or subsidized public transit or free passes to recreational facilities, but such programs, although welcome, will not turn the tide of the biggest most pervasive aspect of living in poverty, which is a lack of sufficient income to survive, much less thrive.

Across the country, local communities are taking charge of poverty reduction and this is exactly where such leadership should come from. Local economic reforms are possible in local communities but without addressing national and provincial systems that work to marginalize people of low income and keep them poor, we won’t win the battle. Which is another way of saying, despite our progress, we have so much left to do and we need to foster ways to improve our systems together, across all sectors.

RESOURCES
Vibrant Communities Canada

Time to reframe poverty reduction as matter of rights (Maytree)

Living Wage Canada

Canadian household debt soars to yet another record

Canadians living paycheque to paycheque, especially in B.C. and Ontario, survey warns

Canada needs a national pharmacare plan: Editorial