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The Poor Haven't Changed — We Have
Published on Sunday, January 2, 2005 by the Toronto Star
The Poor Haven't Changed — We Have
by Linda McQuaig
 

In recent years, the word "underprivileged" has fallen out of use.

Too bad; the word was helpful. It captured the fact that what separated the poor from the rest of society was mostly just privilege — the advantage of being born into the right family. In other words, luck had a lot to do with where one ended up in life.

This fundamental realization helped foster an attitude of sympathy and generosity towards the poor. After all, they were seen as being just like everyone else, only less lucky. So it seemed fair that society should provide them with some support, to make up at least partly for the headstart the rest of us got.

This sort of approach has been brusquely pushed aside in the last two decades, replaced by an aggressive new right-wing ideology with a much harsher attitude towards the poor.

According to this new ideology, the rich are rich because they've contributed more to society, and they therefore deserve their big fortunes. (Many rich people find considerable merit in this theory). Similarly, the new ideology holds that the poor are poor due to their own shortcomings, perhaps laziness or some other character defect.

Thus, the role of privilege — while more pronounced than ever in the lives of the rich and more lacking in the lives of the poor — has been airbrushed out of the picture. Our willingness to embrace this new ideology explains why our streets are increasingly filled with homeless people. The poor haven't changed; we've changed. Egged on by this new mean-spirited ideology, we've kicked the supports out from under them.

Indeed, from the point of view of the poor, what we've delivered in the past two decades amounts to a series of body blows.

Most devastating were the deep cuts made to provincial welfare payments in 1995 by Mike Harris' Conservative government. This blow was compounded by the fact that both Ottawa and Ontario cut off funding for new social housing in the 1990s.

This left Ontario's poor, now with even smaller incomes than before, at the mercy of the private rental housing market — where they faced ever-rising rents and little security. Then in 1998, the Harris government made their situation even more precarious by eliminating crucial rent control protections.

So, while we as a society have grown collectively much richer over the past two decades, we've played Russian roulette with the fate of the most vulnerable members of society. When large numbers of them have ended up faring badly — indeed living on our sidewalks — we've mostly just stepped over them, seeing in their blanket-wrapped idleness proof of the validity of the new ideology.

Despite massive budget surpluses in recent years, Ottawa has been slow to restore what it took away. Cathy Crowe, of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, says however that Ottawa is at least willing to listen. By contrast, she says, the key ministers in Dalton McGuinty's government in Ontario refuse to even meet with her committee. Ontario remains tied in last place (with Newfoundland and Labrador) for the province that spends the least on social housing, Crowe says.

Ironically, the new right-wing ideology may ultimately be more expensive.

To prevent the poor from actually freezing to death in large numbers, we've maintained a crude, barebones shelter system where they can sleep overnight in grim, crowded dormitories.

But the shelter system turns out to be more expensive than providing the poor with rental supplements.

According to a city housing report, rental supplements — which allow the poor to live in regular apartments — cost $11,631 a year per person. The cost of a keeping someone in a shelter is about 40 per cent higher — $16,156 a year. The city figured this out when it set up an emergency program that provided rental supplements for more than a hundred homeless people who'd been evicted from the tent city where they'd been living near the city's waterfront.

A follow-up study last spring determined that 89 per cent of this hardcore homeless crowd were still living in their rental housing a year and a half later, and costing the system substantially less than if they'd been drifting in and out of shelters. Furthermore, they were eating better, returning to school, even finding jobs. In other words, with a little bit of support, they were actually making significant strides at overcoming their "underprivileged" backgrounds.

So it seems that our keen embrace of right-wing ideology in the past two decades may not only be mean, but also stupid — unless our goal is to punish the poor, in which case we're doing a very fine job.

Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and commentator.

© Copyright 2005 Toronto Star Newspapers Limited

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