Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Can We End Poverty?

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.
James A. Baldwin, American author

When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the poor have no food, they call you a communist.

Archbishop Helder Camara
Brazilian archbishop, Catholic Church
Do we have the will to make poverty history?
Bono, singer and social activist

Poverty Is Everywhere: A young Afghan girl begs on the street in Kabul, September 8, 2008.
Photo Credit:  Mikhail Evstafie, 2008.

Bono's question is one of the most important anyone can ask. Poverty affects every nation, every people, every government. One of the problems of poverty is that it is universal. It is no respecter of persons. Persons who have been high can be knocked down off their feet to a point of humility. It's the tragedy written for common people.

And, yet, even today in our enlightened age, poverty carries one the greatest stigmas in the world, particularly in the highly industrialized nations. It remains one of the last taboos. Today, people can talk freely about their sex lives, but not of their poverty and their struggles to get by. This is highly evident in certain communities, where poverty is inextricably linked to failure and shame. It does not have to be this way.

It will take will, to be sure. It will also take a real commitment. For too long, governments have not fought diligently against poverty, giving in to vague promises and photo-ops. Little has really been accomplished in the last thirty years.

That might soon change. A new proposal, guaranteeing a annual income, by the federal government of Canada and the provincial government of Quebec might ease the stigma associated with poverty and being poor, reports the Globe & Mail's Erin Anderssen in To end poverty, guarantee everyone in Canada $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor?

As Ms. Anderssen writes:
The idea of giving money to the poor without strings is not new. It melds altruism and libertarianism, saying both that the best way to fight poverty is to put cash in poor people's pockets and that people can make their own choices better than bureaucrats can. As a result, it can find support in theory from both left and right.

It has been tested with success in other countries, and now it has re-entered the Canadian political conversation.

This week, a House of Commons committee on poverty released a report proposing a guaranteed basic income for Canadians with disabilities, on the model already available to seniors. The Senate released a similar report this spring calling for a study of how it would work for all low-income Canadians.

In Quebec, a government task force went further, recommending a minimum guaranteed income starting at $12,000 for everyone in the province.
Keeping His Dignity in Europe. A man begs for some coins. Like everyone he deserves better.
Photo Credit: Sheldon Levy, circa 1990.
There is already an organization in Europe advocating such measures, BIEN, based in Belgium. Its mission statement is simple:
Founded in 1986, the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) aims to serve as a link between individuals and groups committed to, or interested in, basic income, i.e. an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement, and to foster informed discussion on this topic throughout Europe.

Members of BIEN include academics, students and social policy practitioners as well as people actively engaged in political, social and religious organisations. They vary in terms of disciplinary backgrounds and political affiliations no less than in terms of age and citizenship. In the course of two decades, "BIEN" has become somewhat of a misnomer, as scholars and activists from other continents have actively joined the network.

Common to all is the belief that some sort of economic right based upon citizenship—rather than upon one's relationship to the production process or one's family status - is called for as part of the just solution to social problems in advanced societies. Basic Income, conceived as a universal and unconditional, if modest, continuous stream of income granted throughout life to all members of a political community is just the simplest and most striking element in an expanding set of social policy proposals inspired by this belief and currently debated, if not already implemented.
That a government would consider instituting such a program is both hopeful and heartening. A program of a guaranteed income is humane and would give individual dignity, freedom and hope to people and families. Parents would not have to think where to spend their meager dollars. For the poor, each dollar is worth a lot. So, such a guaranteed income program would be wonderful news for everyone. Society benefits in a classic win-win situation.

More so, it would remove the fear and struggles associated with poverty. It would reduce hospital visits and other health problems linked to poverty. To those hard-hearted pragmatic individuals who say the money is not available, think again: It's not so much a hand-out, but a distribution of money where it would be needed the most. Large corporations in Canada, for example, receive billions of dollars in "corporate welfare." This is considered good for society.

But not in my estimation of fairness and decency. It would serve society far more to help individuals, particularly families with children. Yet, when reading the comments of some individuals in the above-cited article, you would think ice water runs through their veins. Or it might be something else all together different.

To those with atrophied hearts and souls, no amount of reasoning or appeal will work. To those with soft hearts I say this. If you have seen first-hand the affects of poverty on children, it is hard to easily dismiss such a noble idea as ending poverty. Most of us want to think ourselves as decent and fair people.

That would mean not begrudging those who need help from the State. That would mean treating everyone with dignity. That would mean a lot to those now enduring Poverty.
I have written on this subject in previous posts (see On Poverty & The War on Poverty: It's Worth Fighting).