Last week, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty began messaging that implementation of his controversial âeoepoverty reductionâe strategy âeoewill likelyâe be slowed down and scaled back.
His excuse? âeoeThe state of the economy.âe
Poor people, social agencies, trade unions and anti-poverty activists have been attending poverty reduction hearings. They are presenting evidence and advice to provincial and city politicians.
By 2007 poverty was everywhere and quite visible, as it had spilled into the streets; âe~the right to begâe(TM) became a public debate. Governments had already been drawn backwards to entertain thoughts of and the implementation of punitive ways to get rid of poverty in the streets âe” new laws to drive beggars out. Vagrancy laws, taken out of the law books during better times, were being dusted off to be employed again, albeit with a new face.
Chatter abounded from everywhere âe” a new recession was looming. But this time it could be much worse, particularly because unemployment insurance and welfare had been gutted by preceding Federal and Provincial governments. Activists had been clamouring and demonstrating for years to reinstate protection for unemployed people. While reforms were won, living conditions continued to deteriorate.
The cutting of relief sent a clear message to the employed as well. With desperate unemployed people willing to take lower and lower wages, the labour market was under a lot of pressure. When vast amounts of global cheap labour became available, something had to give: wages dropped! The pressure was too great.
Even raising the minimum wage was considered by the province of Ontario as excessive. Politicians, who gladly raised their own salaries generously, said that small businesses would be adversely affected if the working poorâe(TM)s wages went up.
Under such conditions, some organizers encourage people to go to the streets. Others try to contain the troubles, arguing that polite deputations will have better outcomes, because governments generally like politeness and reasonable, constructive discussion about poverty issues. The phrases âeoebe part of the solutionâe and âeoedonâe(TM)t be adversarialâe are part of their arsenal. So, often, serious issues are contained, sometimes even to private consultations âe” âeoereasonable heads will prevail.âe
But going to the streets has a long tradition, and people are going to the streets throughout the world âe” note the recent demonstrations about rising food prices. The Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee (TDRC) and many ad hoc organizations have taken to Torontoâe(TM)s streets for years.
In late 2007, an ad hoc coalition called Toronto Anti-Poverty (TAP) organized and went to the streets in a three-pronged march converging at Queenâe(TM)s Park. Its call for a $10 minimum wage, affordable housing for all, reduced tuition fees for students, recognition of immigrants without status, raises for those with disabilities and an increase in general welfare found wide support. Though the attendance was modest in world terms, the demonstration had the largest turnout of any anti-poverty action in years. Todayâe(TM)s situation âe” a coming recession, pitifully low incomes and the spectre of more people facing dire circumstances âe” could easily lead to larger and larger protests.
The World Bank, a less than liberal organization, introduced a âeoepoverty reductionâe approach. Not to be outdone, governments began to follow suit. In Ontario, consultations were set up to hear the grievances of the poor; however, the poor and their advocates were cautioned that large increases in government budgets were not on the table. In other words, âeoeno new money.âe Naturally, the consultations werenâe(TM)t always polite, but for a short time street demonstrations were largely curtailed. Governments promised to âeoefine tuneâe their approach to poverty.
In backtracking from his proposed poverty reduction agenda McGuinty said, âeoeIn government, we have to act responsibly in the same way that our families do. If finances get tight in our homes, families make adjustments, and they focus on their priorities.âe It seems some of the poorer members of our families are not going to get served at the table like others. Not good news!
The economic strategy of lowering wages and making profits by creating a desperate group of unemployed and under-paid people had been paying off âe” at least from a corporate point of view. But eventually came unwanted outcomes. People had less and less money to buy products. Housing prices were way up, and people were given cheap loans to keep consuming. Peopleâe(TM)s credit cards became maxed-out, which led to a âeoecredit crunch.âe And of course banks and mortgage companies wanted returns on their loans.
House prices in the United States began to fall as people walked away from their now unaffordable homes. Banks and mortgage companies took a hit, and, just as in the recent crisis in Argentina, and as throughout the world during the 1930s, people lined up angrily outside the banks demanding their money. World energy prices were also rising exponentially, and all things related, including the production and transportation of food were affected as well. Thousands of car manufacturing jobs were lost, as were jobs in transportation, and many farmers faced financial hardships.
A recession has taken hold but, again, needed relief is not there. Polite planning for the future using âeoepoverty reductionâe becomes nonsensical when the situation is still worsening. More people are becoming unemployed. The majority of workers are not even eligible for employment insurance, and the unconscionably low welfare rates lead to evictions, homelessness and malnutrition.
Now, organizers and organizations have to call for recession relief or a recession relief fund that can address the potential disaster. Trade unions, anti-poverty organizations, poor people, social agencies, health care workers and concerned citizens have to begin to plan a relief response.
Employment Insurance and overall welfare rates have to increase so that people can eat and not be evicted. Increase in the desperate unemployed will drive wages further down and adversely affect the majority of working people. We have many reasons to unite âe” with pensioners who canâe(TM)t afford rent or food, welfare recipients, disabled people and the list goes on. We will all get hurt in a recession; and we need a relief fund for basic protection.
If we want to plan for the future, we have to talk and fight for poverty elimination, not âeoepoverty reduction,âe which still embraces the concept that âeoethe poor will always be with us.âe
The longer term fight is for permanent jobs with decent pay and localized economies, not for corporations seeking the worldâe(TM)s cheapest labour and importing poor standards, unemployment and poverty. At the very least, we need another âeoeNew Deal.âe