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November 25, 2009

Poverty - not poor people - is the problem

Javed Akbar

Javed AkbarIn his provocative Unto This Last, John Ruskin (1819-1900), a social critic of the Victorian age, incited and angered many, influenced Gandhi and wrote influentially on the means and ends of life.

In this classic collection of essays, Ruskin lays bare the perils of injustice and inhumanity.

One of the stories Ruskin tells depicts how the greed of a merchant with a lot of gold led to a tragic death.

The rich man was sailing aboard a ship to another country. While the voyage was underway, the ship started sinking. To save himself, the merchant had to abandon ship and jump into the sea, with all his gold. But the burden of the gold took him straight to the bottom of the sea. At this point in the narrative, Ruskin asks: "Did the man have the gold, or the gold have the man?"

Ruskin's story was a condemnation of the notorious gold rush in the American continent, and the spirit of robber-baron capitalism which accompanied it.

The moral of the story was true then as it is now.

The lust for material things makes human life an insignificant entity. Indeed, wealth has been a major dilemma that has haunted humanity since time began. In our time, this dilemma comes to us packaged inside a system based primarily, if not exclusively, on profit maximization.

When asked what would he do if he were suddenly to obtain two or three billion dollars, Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen snapped: "Empowerment of the poor is my agenda". 

That is a significantly different agenda from the maximization of profit.

Are the poor empowered in Canada?

How can the poor be empowered where one in six children lives below the poverty line? Or where the death toll among homeless is on the rise? Or where marginalization of the disadvantaged is increasing at a rapid pace?

These observable facts cannot be supported by any moral argument. Citizenship in a kinder and gentler society means a certain moral responsibility toward the disadvantaged.

If we don't take part now in efforts aimed to alleviate the miseries around us, we will leave a legacy of suffering, poverty and human degradation. They are certainly not the attributes of a healthy civilization.

They remind us of decadent Rome, the Coliseum, and the gladiators. They are a throwback to a time when everybody was entertaining the emperor, and forgetting the ordinary people.

Any society based on inequality will inevitably be divided, class-conscious and prejudiced. The growing inequalities in our society, because they begin to seem “normal”, tempt us into a frame of mind which sees our social and civic responsibilities as obstacles to economic progress.

But in Canada there is still a wide-ranging debate on the nature of consumerism, greed vs. solidarity, and the ethics of inequality. This debate reaches down to the roots of the meaning of life. When we forget our intrinsic connection to every other human person, the human conscience finds itself in the full throes of an existential crisis.

The failure to provide the people of Canada with a vision of inclusion, which ennobles citizenship with a passion to provide food, clothing, shelter, good work for those who are able to work, and the social and cultural means of self-fulfillment for everyone, constitutes the most serious failure of public policy in our country.

Poverty—not poor people—is the problem.

We need to remind each other, through urgent public dialogue, that poverty can be reduced if not ended, and that the most vulnerable and dispossessed among us are citizens and neighbors who deserve compassion, support, and respect.

Poor people don’t have the dollars to make influential campaign contributions. They have only hit-and-miss access to the mainstream media, and usually no way to tell their stories. If they are poor, many assume it must be their own fault, rather than the consequence of so many forces that are beyond individual control (but not beyond social control!) such as racism, sexism, disability, downsizing, outsourcing, corporate greed, union busting, or an inadequate safety net.

In the most devastating economic catastrophe since the great depression of the 1930s, many North Americans know all too well that social justice has yet to be served. Economic injustice is the great unacknowledged specter which haunts our society. And this injustice is, sadly, increasing.

There are moments that have been somewhat like that in Canadian history: the long struggle launched by Tommy Douglas, the socially passionate preacher from Saskatchewan, which resulted in publicly-funded medical insurance for all citizens of this country.

We need such moments in every generation. We need one in this generation. We need several.

We need not only to prevent environmental catastrophe, but also, for example, to transform the world of work so that the need of every human being for dignified, fulfilling, responsible and justly compensated work becomes Priority #1 of all economic planning.

Positive, fundamental social change is always very difficult. But the collective power of individuals to defend social values and justice will enliven our future, just as surely as public indifference will deaden it.

That power, that strength to energize the present with hope for the future is in the heart and hand of every decent citizen.

Let's make use of this strength. Let's begin from our home - Canada.

Javed Akbar is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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