Saturday, May 10, 2008

What follows is an interesting article from OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, about the Ontario government's "Poverty Reduction" program. True to form, the intent of the government is not to actually "reduce poverty", whatever that might mean in an inherently unequal society, but to appear to be doing something , while often doing either nothing or even the precise opposite of the stated goal. Also true to form the Ontario Liberals are determined to "commission and study" the problem so as to extract the maximum possible drops of pr out of the matter. I guess the "poverty" of the bureaucrats that sit on such commissions will be reduced, even if nobody else's is. Ah well, read on....

Are they Trying or Lying?
The McGuinty Liberals have jumped onto the very overcrowded bandwagon of ‘Poverty Reduction’. They have set up a process of highly selective consultation to ‘define the problem’. Then, they tell us, they will ‘set targets’ to reduce poverty and implement a package of reforms to that effect. Implied in all this is an expectation that we should accept it as a good faith initiative. In fact, we are expected to play along and wait patiently for the eventual benefits that will, supposedly, flow from it.
The first thing that needs to be said is that an uncritical acceptance of this undertaking would be an act of extraordinary naiveté. This is the second term for the Liberals and everything they have done to date consolidates the Harris Common Sense Revolution while smoothing over social divisions with token gestures.
Perhaps we should just take a glimpse at how the Liberals have dealt with the poor over the last few years. They campaigned the first time they were elected on a platform that included repealing the Safe Streets Act that Harris used to set the cops on the homeless. To-day,that law is still in effect, being used on a scale far greater than when the Tories held power. In Toronto, over the last three years,there has been a nearly 300% increase in the number of Safe Streets tickets being issued. The Liberal Attorney General has sent his people into Court to oppose legal challenges to the Act and his prosecutors are seeking and obtaining jail time for people convicted of panhandling.
While an oversupply of upscale housing crowds out the skyline, decent and truly affordable housing remains a dream for the poor. Toronto Community Housing says it needs $300 million to repair and preserve its buildings. Less than 10% of that has been provided by Queen’s Park and180,000 public housing tenants in Toronto are living in units that are, literally, falling apart.
Under pressure, modest increases to the minimum wage have occurred but welfare and disability rates have lost ground against inflation under the Liberals. More people than ever are being evicted from their housing for lack of income. Attempts to use the ‘Special Diet’ policy within the welfare system to actually provide people with enough to eat have been fought tooth and nail by the Liberals. Now, the new Ontario Child Benefit, their first step towards ‘poverty reduction’, will not even be the promised $50 a month for those on assistance and will be reduced even further through the elimination of clothing allowances.
A 40% reduction in real income for people on welfare still casts its shadow over the lives of hundreds of thousands in this Province years after McGuinty first took office on a platform of ‘change’. Meanwhile,Deb Matthews, the Minister who will be handling his belated conversion to ‘poverty reduction’, has promised to leave intact the Harris tax cuts that made the rich richer and the poor poorer. But these were paid for in large measure by the people and families on assistance who had their income slashed. If that is not be reversed, then we are talking about a process of reform that is denied the resources it would need to be meaningful.
If this poverty reduction initiative, then, is lacking in sincerity, we may ask ourselves what it is about. In fact, it has several aspects to it and is part of a process that goes well beyond Ontario.
There is actually a wing of the corporate structure that has become nervous about overly crude methods when it comes to reducing social provision. The Toronto Star with its present ‘war on poverty’ is perhaps the best example of such timid, post Harris ‘social engineering’. It worries about the impact of outright social abandonment and the damage done by earlier cutbacks. There’s no nostalgia for the post war social infrastructure, of course, but measures to deal with the worst excesses of poverty are something to look at, provided they don’t go too far.
The above consideration, very limited as it is, is the only element of the ‘poverty reduction’ process that has any genuine quality about it. We may also anticipate that a great deal of what Ms. Matthews wants to develop would be highly regressive in nature. Even with the brutality of the Harris cuts to social assistance, the system can still be redesigned in ways that make it more effective in forcing the poor into low wage employment. By separating the benefits for children from those of their parents, a classical use of the division between the‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor is to be seen. Once a mythical adequacy has been developed for children, welfare can become an even better tool for driving adults into the most exploitative jobs. Even at this early stage, Matthews is fixating on children as if she actually believes their poverty can be considered as something apart from that of their parents or that the poverty of single adults is of secondary importance.
The roots of the new religion of ‘poverty reduction’ are actually to be found in the neo liberal assault on poor countries. Structural adjustment programs have removed limited protections for poor people and driven vast sections of the population from rural self sufficiency into huge and expanding mega cities, where they are warehoused in squalor on the fringes of economic life. Abandoned people in their abandoned communities are then told that they can be ‘empowered’ and become ‘self sufficient’ through community economic development. The World Bank and IMF, having inflicted misery on billions of people, now offer them such preposterous ‘solutions’ in place of the resources they need.
It was striking that ideas drawn from the international ‘poverty reduction’ industry were present in Matthews’ comments on how she sees her work. She stressed that reducing peoples’ poverty was only to a limited degree about resources. (This is very convenient since the rich have taken those resources and don’t intend to give them back). No, in fact, a large part of dealing with poverty is about giving people ‘opportunities’. Notions of ‘personal responsibility’ and measures of ‘tough love’ are not very far away and give us another warning that there is an actively regressive element to this process.
Of course, the main models of poverty reduction being pointed to are those that have emerged in other ‘developed countries’. Ireland and the UK are held up a great deal. The achievements in those countries were, actually, much more limited and contradictory than they would like to acknowledge but they also took place in a very different context to that facing Ontario to-day. Especially in the case of Ireland, the twenty six county republic was experiencing an unheard of expansion and industrialization. With recessionary storm clouds gathering here and, with the industrial base massively eroded ahead of time, we would be overly trusting to expect that the McGuinty Government will charge uphill for social justice. If this process and its directions remain in their hands, the prospects for any progress in the fight against poverty are bleak indeed.
As Matthews moves from community to community with her little circus,we should note that we are seeing here a specialty of the Liberal Party at work. That body is, after all, the main political mechanism for demobilizing communities and channeling grievances into blind allies of‘dialogue’ and consultation. They plan to give the poor very little in terms of concessions and to include in their reform package measures that make things worse. The question, then, has to be will this thing unfold as a safe and controlled exercise with the results mapped out by the Government ahead of time or will the demands and the anger of poor people and their communities break through and dominate the process?
If the Liberals lose control of this, it would not be the first time that an attempt to divert community anger has, instead, provided a focus for it.
In the early 1970s, the Senate Committee on Poverty became a lightning rod for community anger. The Social Assistance Review Committee in the Ontario of the late 80s did not at all divert poor people from mobilizing.Matthews is trying to prevent this by holding controlled, invitation only consultations. Already indignant voices are being raised and communities are starting to challenge her attempt to keep the anger of poor people from intruding on her sanitized deliberations.
We have been warned against ‘simplistic’ solutions and told that we can’t tackle the complexities of poverty until we ‘define the problem’.We should have very limited patience with a notion that works so well for those wanting to do as little as possible for as long as they can. If Matthews wants a definition of poverty, the amount of money people get from her Government’s welfare system is a good definition. So is the wage people bring home at the legislated minimum her Government sets. When you have to make a choice between paying the rent and eating decent food, that is poverty and it is created and maintained by the Government Matthews is part of. She and her ‘Cabinet colleagues’need to hear that from the poor and their allies.
Our demands for living income, decent housing and other vital community needs must force their way to the forefront. The Liberal’s circus of consultation needs a large measure of truth and big dose of reality.

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