POVERTY, PLUTOCRACY AND A PLACE TO LIVE

Last December, the controversial Rev. Ric Matthews resigned from the First United Church, citing the clash between official safety requirements and the overflow of Vancouver homeless seeking shelter. The very same day, The City of Vancouver, Reliance Properties, and ITC Construction Group rolled out their 230-square-foot “microloft” apartments, pitching the $850 a month rentals as “an affordable and much needed non-subsidized rental housing opportunity in downtown Vancouver.”

It’s no surprise the grand opening was met with protest. These snazzy Tombs With a View did little to address the parallel problems of poverty and housing affordability in Vancouver. They were a bit like offering a starving person some itsy-bitsy foodie morsels with an Urban Fare price tag. (The Woodwards development in the same area, with its mix of social and market housing, stands out for being an exception.)

A friend recently wrote me an email about the “great moral shame about people in poverty in Canada.” He feels we all need to ask the most basic question: “why?” Not why are “they” struggling every day, but why do we accept things as they are? He wrote: “Why do we accept that the waitress who just brought us lunch needs a church’s food pantry to feed her daughter for the rest of the month? She’s working and that should be enough. Why do we accept the family living in their car, the mentally ill and the addicts who die on our streets, and the children who go to school tired and hungry? Maybe we accept things as they are because poverty has always been with us and we think nothing will change. Or maybe we accept things as they are because it’s so easy to look away. Are the two intimately linked? Are our feelings of powerlessness linked with our indifference?”

I prefer to think our sense of powerlessness is linked more to “compassion fatigue” than indifference. There is also an impulse to blame the victim—to lump in the mentally ill and substance abusers with those who have failed, for whatever reasons, to successfully “compete” in the market. The spiralling real estate values on the West Coast can’t be pegged on the B.C. Liberal government. But when our leaders say they can’t sustain a previous generation’s expectations for health care, housing and education, what they don’t tell you is that they slashed corporate income taxes to 10 per cent from 16.5 per cent in 2001. This, and along with the Liberals’ other tax cuts, have helped choked off their revenue stream. Like their Tory brethren in Ottawa, the provincial Liberal government keeps telling us that big government doesn’t work—and damned if they haven’t gone and proven it.

Perhaps the big home with the two-car garage is going the way of the hula hoop and automotive tailfins. Personally, I have no problem with the last generation of SUVs and Hummers rusting away in driveways, as laneway homes spread like rhizome from Mount Pleasant to Marpole. That being said, this city, this province, and this nation is awash in capital. It’s just that our investment models are embedded in free market fundamentalism. Communities with strong social funding networks actually produce significant economic spinoffs. Scandinavian nations consistently perform at the top for global economic competitiveness, while supporting strong public sectors. Why can’t we?

I could go on about the decades-long dynamic between poverty and plutocracy, yet noble-sounding words in newsprint aren’t of much use to someone desperately seeking shelter in our “world class city.” Whether they are a 9 to 5 wage slave or a single mother and her kid, the only thing they have the energy to investigate is a church bulletin board, or Craigslist, for a place to rest their heads.

Neither do I have a good answer to my friend’s question about why we shrug at the day-to-day shame of poverty in this province, and accept the highest child poverty rate in Canada. What I can say is we need to stop reelecting politicians who say they represent the struggling many, when they have proven over and over that their true allegiance is to the prosperous few.

Or we can all sit back and just trust the market to weave its long-deferred magic on us all. After all, didn’t those hip microlofts rent out in a matter of hours?

The Vancouver Courier, Mar. 23

4 thoughts on “POVERTY, PLUTOCRACY AND A PLACE TO LIVE

  1. suzanne

    Such an excellent article. Thank you for writing this. I teach on the east side of Vancouver and although our school isn’t inner city, many of our students and their families struggle financially. As a single parent, I also undersand how difficult it can be. I find that so many people have no clue how about the poverty so many people in our province experience. 20% of children under six are living in poverty and when they come to school in kindergarten so many of them are behind their peers. We have the highest rate of poverty in Canada here in BC and yet we are also the wealthiest province in Canada. This is inexcusable. Why isn’t everyone standing up and saying this is not right and it’s not about giving to charity and “adopting a school”, it’s about systemic change!
    Anyways, thanks again for writing this-I always enjoy your column.

  2. Thanks Suzanne. Given this glaring contradiction between provincial wealth and social welfare, it boggles my mind that Vancouver is constantly pitched as such a lifestyle Mecca. I suppose it may be that to the very rich, who are sheltered from the down side.

  3. I’m a little unnerved that I suddenly find myself as one of those in the upper tier of our 2-tier medical system. ie. one who has enough money to buy healthy food, and benefits to pay for treatments not covered under BC Medical. In a way, I’d almost prefer to be poorer. Were it not for the fact that I’ve Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and I now need those financial advantages. I ache for those getting by on $900/month disability.
    . . . I often have imaginary, frustratingly fruitless arguments in my head trying to explain the horrible life on $900/month, to those who rail against the “welfare types” who are stealing their hard-earned salaries in taxes from them.

    I mentioned to a new ager once that I try hard to imagine myself in the place of those being pursued and murdered in Rwanda in 94. I was surprised that she had a hard time understanding why.
    . . . This points to a possible explanation of what you say, Suzzane, about people avoiding thinking about those less fortunate – the 20% living below the poverty line. People are actively blocking awareness of the less well off in their own minds. I try to do the opposite in my own mind, but perhaps i’m a bit of a moral masochist.

    I’ve been worrying these ideas for the past few years, as it seems like most of the world wants to block solutions, or even block discussions of these issues amongst one’s friends.

    It must be that evolutionarily we succeed more in the world by focusing on the winners, and “getting their ear”.
    . . . And I think that psychologically there must be a payoff in feeling good when we mentally place ourselves in the winner’s circle, which can’t exist without the “losers” being on the outside of it. “In your FACE, Losers!”

    Too many of us are bad winners. And I think our brain chemicals cause us to feel survival fears when thinking about poverty, and too many of us “can’t bear to think of it”. After all, there but for the grace of god, go any of us.

    Who knows what can start us down that path of falling from grace? Best not get too pallsy-wallsy with those earning less money than we do.

    1. Well said. We’re still primates after all, and status is hard-wired at some level into our brains as a survival issue…even among First Worlders who’ve long had the luxury of skirting the worst kind of ‘us versus them’ conflicts.

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