“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, "Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land. (Deut. 15:11).”
I'm taking a lot of pictures for the newspaper this month this month of people donating to the local food bank, which is called on to feed entirely too many people. I don't remember there even being food banks in most communities when I was growing up, though I'm sure there were people in need at that time too. There just seem to be a lot more of them now and the food banks seem to have gone from being an emergency response to the recession of the 80s, to a fixture in virtually every town.
It is difficult to know at this time just what percentage of people in the Golden Horseshoe are living in poverty. Different agencies use different yardsticks to measure poverty and many who live in poverty are not counted, but ask anyone who works with the poor and the homeless and they all agree on one thing: there are a lot more people relying on food banks and other non-governmental charities for daily necessities than there were a few years ago, and a lot fewer donations coming in. Most recent estimates I've seen for the Hamilton area say between 15% and 20% live below the poverty line.
Charles Dickens was right.
``Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,'' said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit's robe, ``but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!''
``It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,'' was the Spirit's sorrowful reply. ``Look here.''
From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.
``Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!'' exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.
``Spirit! are they yours?'' Scrooge could say no more.
``They are Man's,'' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ``And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!'' cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. ``Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!''
``Have they no refuge or resource?'' cried Scrooge.
``Are there no prisons?'' said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. ``Are there no workhouses?''
When I started in the community newspaper business mumblty'leven years ago, most small towns didn't have food banks. Even in the big cities, they were a fairly new thing. Now, they are everywhere. I get a call at least once a week to cover a story about people collecting food for the food bank all year long -- at Christmas, I get ten calls like that a week.
I grew up in a middle sized industrial city, moved to the suburbs of a larger industrial city in high school and went to university in another middle-sized industrial town. Maybe I led a very sheltered life as a kid, but I don't remember ever seeing a homeless person when I was a kid and I spent a fair amount of time riding the buses downtown and hanging out on the main street. "Hobos" "bums" and "tramps" were something out of old movies that you dressed up as for Halloween. I didn't really see any homeless people until the early 80's and even then, it was only the occasional drunk. By the early 90's I was seeing homeless people living on the streets of small towns in Ontario. Now, they seem omnipresent and the working poor and people on welfare that are trapped in poverty seem legion. It used to be that every generation expected to do a little better than their parents. Now, most people my age have given up on that and seem willing to settle for a permanent, full time job that covers the rent.
I think it is terrific that people who have the means to do so are willing to contribute to the food drives and the winter coat drives and the blanket and sleeping bag drives for the homeless drives and give money to the Good Shepherd shelters and Mission Services and do all the other myriad things people do to try to mitigate the disease of poverty in our community, but I often wonder if anyone is doing anything about the root causes.
I think most would agree that improving access to education is a big part of fixing the problem as is the need for the school systems to teach life skills like money management. But I think there are some larger issues that people forget about, such as infrastructure and poor public transport.
For example, it is very expensive to be poor but much cheaper to be middle class or wealthy. Middle class folks can drive to the supermarket and load up on whatever is on sale that week, or even go and buy the giganto-enormo-family pack size at Costco or Sam's Club or whatever warehouse store you favor and store the excess in the basement or fill the freezer. Poor people can't shop there. The warehouse store are usually members-only, and people on welfare or without credit cards don't usually qualify. And they don't have the cars to haul the stuff home or the basement or the freezer to store the stuff in if they did.
There aren't even proper supermarkets in a lot of poor neighborhoods, so people wind up paying more for the bread and milk and other necessities they can get at the neighborhood corner store and have much more limited access to good, cheap, fresh fruits and vegetables.
Maybe they could take a bus from their home out to the suburban supermarket and haul the bags of groceries home on public transit once a week, but that takes hours they don't have if they are working and money for bus fare they don't have if they aren't. And that assumes you can even get a bus from where they live to where the big suburban stores are.
Those that are really struggling may live somewhere like a boarding house or a shelter where they can't
cook or at least can't store any significant amount of groceries.
As to the effect that poverty has on children, well, let me leave you with this, some responses from Grade 4 & 5 students in North Bay, Ontario, quoted in "Our Neighbours’ Voices: Will We Listen?" published by The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, 1998, James Lorimer & Co. Ltd. Toronto
Not being able to go to McDonald’s
Getting a basket from the Santa Fund
Feeling ashamed when my dad can’t get a job
Not buying books at the book fair
Not getting to go to birthday parties
Hearing my mom and dad fight over money
Not ever getting a pet because it costs too much
Wishing you had a nice house
Not being able to go camping
Not getting a hot dog on hot dog day
Not getting pizza on pizza day
Not being able to have your friends sleep over
Pretending that you forgot your lunch
Being afraid to tell your mom that you need gym shoes
Not having breakfast sometimes
Not being able to play hockey
Sometimes really hard because my mom gets scared and she cries
Not being able to go to Cubs or play soccer
Not being able to take swimming lessons
Not being able to afford a holiday
Not having pretty barrettes for your hair
Not having your own private backyard
Being teased for the way you are dressed
Not getting to go on school trips.
I'm not trying to make anyone feel guilty for enjoying what they have this Christmas, but I do hope that those of us with the means to do so are contributing more than just the tax dollars the government takes. Just remember that most middle class folks in North America are one or two paycheques from away from losing their comfortable lives and slipping down the ladder into poverty. And every year it gets harder and harder to break out of the poverty trap. So keep collecting those canned goods, rice and pasta. Keep giving money to all the homeless shelters and keep volunteering. In a more just and equitable society, none of that would be necessary, but we don't live in that society right now. And we keep electing people who make it worse, but that's a post for another time.
For now, keep fighting the good fight and Merry Christmas.
(this post originally appeared as two posts on The Woodshed)