To have or have not

Lawrence Solomon
Next City
June 21, 1996

 

Hillary, whom I see once or twice a year on her visits to her middle-class parents in Toronto, is very much like them, except that she is poor. “There’s nothing wrong with being poor,” she says, “apart from people who try to stigmatize you. What does being poor mean, anyway? We may have no money for restaurants, and no VCR, but does that mean we lead an impoverished life?”

Hillary, who works as a chambermaid in a hotel, wouldn’t mind earning more, but not if that means giving up her comfortable, simple life in one of British Columbia’s picture-book valleys, where she and her husband manage one backpacking trip abroad and all the books they can read on less than $12,000 a year.

Unlike Hillary, my old friend Brian and his parents are not middle class. A school dropout far brighter than most who stuck with it, Brian, like his father and grandfather, enjoys his beer and smokes. For as long as I have known him, he has lived from paycheque to paycheque, and though a loving father and faithful husband, he can’t manage money. One evening he called, babies crying in the background, to borrow $20. He had inadvertently drunk the milk money. Frantically, Brian picked the money up by cab, which ate up most of the loan. The penny-pinching plodder in me has never understood how Brian gets himself into these predicaments, but I do understand that he has a different value system, one that all but ensures that he will never be wealthy. Brian lives for the present, and he wouldn’t be Brian if he didn’t. He genuinely scoffs at people driven by making money, and wonders about the point of slaving for 40 years until retirement at 65, to get 10 or 15 years of leisure you’re too old to enjoy.

You don’t need to be poor to share Brian’s, or Hillary’s, views; I know rich people who, in the same mid-40s age group as Hillary, have retired to the countryside. And rich spendthrifts who live for the present, running through their inheritances. But when the rich are laid back, they’re likelier to be envied than stigmatized.

HILLARY AND BRIAN and millions of other canadians are all lumped together in our national poverty statistics. Having lived in poor neighborhoods for most of my life, in a family whose income often dipped below the neighborhood average, I bristle at the characterization of people without ready cash as some kind of sub-species called “The Poor.” Brian’s lapses notwithstanding, poor people are neither unable to look after themselves, nor members of the exploited masses. Poor people know what they like, just as everyone does, and they know what trade-offs they’re prepared to make to obtain it. While many are trapped by circumstances – severely handicapped people, people too old and frail to work, those with personality disorders, and some who have been dealt an especially bad hand – poor people discriminate between jobs they would enjoy and those they wouldn’t, mull over borrowing money for that vacation, weigh a trek to the supermarket against the pricier but handier convenience stores. Put another way, poor people value their time, as we all do. But the rest of us, feeling superior because we’re not poor, feel justified in criticizing poor people’s priorities. We wouldn’t think of telling a jet-setter to make himself useful, but his poor counterpart is readily branded a ne’er-do-well (for whom we once had harsh vagrancy laws, and now workfare) or a cycle-of-poverty victim (for whom we have no end of sympathy and government make-work programs).

MOST OF US, at some point in our lives, flirt with the poverty stats, which measure our welfare by the income of our households. Hillary would have been classed as a “child living in poverty” while her parents were scrimping to put her father through university. She would then have become “well off” for two decades as her parents became financially secure, and then “poor” for much of the next two decades after leaving home. Anyone who takes a year off work to travel, care for a loved one, study or just reflect on life while contemplating a change in direction can find himself catalogued on society’s lower rungs.

A recent U.S. survey sheds new light on poverty by measuring how much people spend instead of the amount they earn. It shows that the bottom fifth, people with incomes under $6,800, spend an average of $14,000. Many are not poor at all; they are living on their savings, selling assets, and otherwise financing a time of low income. Income-based statistics show a higher poverty rate in the 1990s than the 1960s. But poverty is instead measured by spending, the U.S. poverty rate of 31 per cent in 1949 falls to 13 per cent in 1965, and keeps falling steadily, to two per cent in 1989. These figures include cash welfare payments and other transfer programs, which raise many above poverty levels; they exclude non-cash government benefits such as public housing and Medicaid, which, if included, might have lowered the poverty rate further still.

The best measure of our wealth, however, is not how much we earn, or spend, but how much we have. A survey by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board shows remarkable progress between 1983 and 1989: White families increased their net worth by an average of 24 per cent (to $216,400), blacks by 35 per cent (to $48,600) and Hispanics by 54 per cent (to $49,200). On the whole, we are becoming better and better off, and rapidly so.

WHILE TRUE POVERTY levels have been plummeting, in part because of generous transfer payments, poverty has also become much more visible due to policies that have evicted some of society’s saddest souls, those with serious mental disorders, from our public institutions, and left them to fend for themselves on city streets. The abolition of vagrancy laws also fools us into thinking poverty has worsened, when many of today’s vagrants, in an earlier era, would simply have hung out elsewhere. Fooled, we strive to solve the illusory immediate problem of widespread poverty that doesn’t exist, while ignoring real and pressing ones that do.

Looking for the root cause of poverty in some ideological class war in which capitalists mysteriously hold the poor down, or in presumed systemic bigotry that prevents one group or another from prospering, deflects us from marshalling our efforts for the truly needy. Our society is just; for every door shut by a bigot to someone deserving, two will swing open. As Statistics Canada shows, the rich get poorer and the poor get richer all the time. In its recent study of the importance of family wealth to children’s success, 27- to 30-year-old sons were compared with each other to see where they stood on their own social ladder. Eighty per cent of the sons didn’t do as well (relative to their peers) as their dads had, when the dads were in the top 10 per cent of income earners, while 86 per cent of sons did better than dads who were in the bottom 10 per cent. The sons of middle-income earners were as likely to rise to the top of the charts as they were to fall to the bottom. The ability to manage money – a combination of desire and discipline – is the best predictor of whether someone will die wealthy. Many poor people have these money management skills, many rich don’t, a happenstance that creates great upward and downward mobility in a largely tolerant, largely open country such as Canada. Only our small prejudices refuse poor people their pride and dignity.

SINCE MY CHILDHOOD, possibly because I identified with biblical stories of Jews in captivity, possibly because of my own family’s struggles, I have always been interested in the plight of the poor and those unjustly treated. I supported civil rights causes, opposed the Vietnam War, and then found my voice working for an environmental group. But I was always struck by how my fellow travellers in the broad progressive movement (apart from those in the labor movement) tended to come from comfortable, even wealthy, homes, and how – by assuming poor people would want their middle-class values, once they saw the light – these reformers patronized poor people.

Perhaps their thinking has a place in class-ridden Britain. Possibly it has a place in the U.S., where racism has been systemic. Certainly racism helps explain the widespread poverty of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, whose property rights whites continue to violate to this day.

But most “poverty” is either temporary, or it reflects a personal inclination to live for the present rather than save for the future, or it is part of a “voluntary simplicity” trend that the Wall Street Journal recently found to be growing – a belief that making and spending less are rewarding in themselves, that simplicity keeps us in touch with the important things in life, the things we all know are free.

For most people, lifestyle choices dictate income levels, not the other way around. And although I don’t doubt that being rich is better than being poor, speaking from personal experience, being poor wasn’t all that bad. If it were, nuns wouldn’t take vows of poverty, artists wouldn’t starve in their garrets, Hillary would give up her valley and Brian his beer and smokes.

Discussion

, Toronto, responds: May 27, 1996

, Toronto, responds: June 12, 1996

, Kanata, Ontario, responds: September 26, 1996


Edward McDonnell, Toronto, responds: May 27, 1996

Mr. Solomon,

I have rarely encountered such a disingenuous publication as yours: its attempt to appear progressive and sensitive while actually championing and justifying the worst aspects of liberalism and capitalism is truly audacious. I salute your highly developed ability to craft propaganda, which may manage to sell the virtues of selfishness and the existence of illusory universal opportunity to those who didn’t really intend to buy them.

Your own attempts to use your experience as a Jew (“Since my childhood, possibly because I identified with biblical stories of Jews in capitivity. . .”) are pathetic and despicable. The lessons of the Jewish people actually teach us about the destructive ability of powerful elites to scapegoat and misrepresent the situation and nature of vulnerable groups in society, in much the same way as you’ve done with regard to the poor in your magazine’s summer edition.

The existence of poverty is not a matter of choice or some statistical misinterpretation. It has existed throughout history because of the ability of the few to justify to themselves their need for the much at the expense of the many, and the few’s ability to enforce this inequity on others. Your magazine represents the continuation of a long history of attempts to characterize inequity and exploitation as ethical and/or inevitable.

Your magazine offers neither a compassionate nor moral perspective, so show some integrity and drop the pretension.


David Vallance, Toronto, responds: June 12, 1996

Re: To have or have not

This is an important contribution to the subject of poverty. By pointing out that some poverty is a lifestyle choice and that the opportunity to exercise that choice is enhanced by many varieties of welfare payments, you have demonstrated that many of those programs are misguided transfers from people who want to some who don’t. When combined with Jeb Blount’s “Buddy, can you spare a loonie?” we learn that there is a fairly large population that does need help. If we could direct our efforts to the right category, we would all benefit.

The article doesn’t make the connection with the City. The question I would like you to discuss is, What should be the City’s role in looking after the people who need help and how do we avoid wasting money on those who don’t?

Part of the answer can be found in the item in your magazine, “What makes cities grow?,” and in the Harvard Business Review May-June 1995, “The competitive advantage of the inner city” by Michael E. Porter. Two quotations from the article summarize Mr. Porter’s point: “We must stop trying to cure the inner cities problems by perpetually increasing social investment and hoping economic activity will follow,” and “Our policies and programs have fallen into the trap of redistributing wealth. The real need – and the real opportunity – is to create wealth.”

As a last comment, the City of Toronto’s 1994 financial report shows that Transportation Environmental Services, and Planning and Development totaled $266.2 million dollars out of total spending of $826.7 million, or about 32 per cent of the City’s budget, which is only 27.5 per cent of total revenues collected in the City (the rest went to schools and Metro. Metro spent most of their share from the City on police and TTC). The potential savings to the taxpayer if all these items were totally eliminated is less than 9 per cent of their taxes. If realistically we could reduce the cost for these items by 30 per cent the savings would only be 3 per cent.

I suggest that the real savings lie not in garbage, or transportation etc., but in government itself. Based on the criteria in the item, “What makes cities grow?,” mentioned above, Toronto is a very high spending city, and in my opinion, despite all the accolades Toronto receives from internationally bodies, the City of Toronto is in serious decline. I also believe the decline can be halted and you have an important role to play.


John Baster, Sr., Kanata, Ontario, responds: September 26, 1996

As I read Lawrence Solomon’s pieces explaining how individual payments and tolls would relieve traffic congestion and street parking problems, I concluded he believes people’s ability to pay is based upon their efforts contributing to the well-being of society. The greater a person’s income the greater their integrity, prestige and contribution. Lesser incomes should be diverted from public thoroughfares to clear the way for more superior people. It might be noted that bankers are traditionally very successful in business, as are their shareholders. It might also be noted that banks produce little more than waste paper. Banking is an activity which reaps immense harvests of money while producing nothing. One might ask how bankers and their financial colleagues can be so much more superior than a person who clears plugged drains under a street.

There is a term “conservative pretension.” This term is defined in many ways depending on the financial status of the definer. However, one thing is certain: Pretension is based on money as an end in itself. Therein lies the weakness of civilized democracy. National objectives reduced to the accumulation of money by individuals, inevitably become uncivilized, as two world wars in living memory will attest.

Mr. Solomon’s piece “To have or have not” states: “Poverty is really a matter of choice.” I think not. Mr. Solomon for some reason considers a low income from unplugging drains less important than his own self-satisfied conservatism. In seeking a more worthy national objective based on personal responsibility, accomplishment in the interest of society, personal fulfilment and happiness, we might concentrate more on education. Some human values seem common to almost all cultures regardless of religion. Honesty, trust and respect for others are qualities admired everywhere. There is little doubt that poverty, lack of privilege, crowding and disease stem from ignorance. Ignorance breeds and feeds on itself. Money alone can’t solve this problem. Human brains are all about the same size with equal capacity for mental activity. Biologically no brain is superior to another. All Western societies have an abundance of educational facilities, schools are everywhere. It is probably necessary for students to study economics, business, physics and reading. Certainly reading. Mostly it is necessary that students should want to learn due to being immersed in a stimulating environment teeming with wholesome values common to all human beings. True education has no place for pretension, bigotry or prejudice. Requirements for formal study can only be academic prerequisites. Only the state can bear the financial cost of full civilized education. The state reaps a harvest of responsible informed citizens. All citizens are the state, regardless of income.

 

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