Monday, 15 September 2014

Poverty much more complex than "underclass"

One of my morning disciplines is to read several newspapers, including the New York Times and the Sun Times. I read them on line. I find that they often give me insights and understandings of the world which I would otherwise miss.

Recently an obituary for an American university professor caught my eye.

Michael B. Katz, a historian and social theorist, who challenged the prevailing view in the 1980s and ’90s that poverty stemmed from the bad habits of the poor, marshalling the case that its deeper roots lay in the actions of the powerful, died on Aug. 23 in Philadelphia at the age of 75.

Dr. Katz was the first academic to analyse the public welfare policies of the United States in te 20th century and propose the idea that very few of the social welfare policies proposed by governments in the last hundred years would or could work. His basis for that statement was grounded in how we understand poverty and community. Katz said there was a fundamental tension between the micro and macro views of poverty. In the micro view, individuals were the authors of their lives and impoverishment proof of their moral failing. In the macro analysis, large historic forces and economic trends — war and peace, the shifting interests of capital — favoured some people and disadvantaged others.

According to the New York Times, "in the 1990s, Professor Katz joined a heated debate about a segment of the poor referred to as "the underclass" — drug addicts, dropouts, unwed mothers, long-term welfare recipients and others who formed a "culture of poverty" supposedly beyond help.

In the introduction to an anthology he edited in 1992, "The Underclass Debate: Views From History," Professor Katz said the idea of poverty as an "underclass" problem was misguided.

"The processes creating an underclass degrade all our lives," he wrote, adding, "We will flourish or sink together."

Over the summer I have been reading a fascinating book by economic historian Gregory Clark about the power of surnames.

Clark’s theory, for which he presents convincing evidence from cultures around the world, is that in big picture terms, changes in social mobility in cultures are very slow, on the order of hundreds of years and predictable.

If you were born into the middle class or the upper class, your children will, in all probability be in that class and any change will occur, by and large, over hundreds of years.

In other words, the myth of Horatio Alger, that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps and improve yourself and your social position, is simply wishful thinking.

We have been deeply influenced by this thinking in our society. We hear the myths of the poor being lazy and the authors of their own problems again and again until we believe it is true. We are promised that people in poverty will have a better life once they have a job.

It’s simply not true. A job is the last step and, in all likelihood, the easiest part. Housing, health, transportation and education are more important foundations before work.

What we don’t have in Canada, and desperately need, is a national strategy to prevent poverty.

We should be working towards that. We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Instead, Canada has rejected calls for a national strategy to prevent poverty and opted instead for band-aid solutions like food banks.

Canada has even gone so far as to tell charities, through the Canada Revenue Agency, that prevention of poverty is not a legitimate charitable aim. A charity can relive poverty but can’t work towards prevention of poverty.

What is wrong with this picture?

I don’t have all the solutions, but I do know we all have to work together to build a better, stronger, better community. A national strategy to prevent poverty is a good start.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and the host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.