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Poverty reduction strategies are wrong-headed

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CALGARY — I don’t like poverty — and not just because it is horrible for any person to experience. Where poverty rates are high, crime and imprisonment rates tend to be higher, health outcomes for everyone are lower, and addictions and mental illnesses are more common. Poverty is bad for everyone, not just those who experience it directly.

I also dislike poverty reduction plans. The entire premise of "reduction" is wrong-headed. Reduction assumes that it is acceptable to reduce the impacts of poverty without addressing the core reasons it exists. If we really address the core issues, then poverty would be eliminated.

"Reducing" rather than "eliminating" poverty suggests that it is enough to address one subset of the poor, or a tiny symptom of poverty’s impact, while ignoring others. Picking only the lowest-hanging fruit to help for short-term political expediency is ethically unconscionable because it overlooks many others deserving help and avoids the core causes of poverty.

In my experience, meetings on poverty reduction typically include lengthy kudos for the well-to-do, funders, and politicians, often to the exclusion of addressing the issue itself and with little involvement of those actually living in poverty.

Leaving people who live in poverty out of key decision-making bodies proposing solutions invites failure. It would be refreshing to see a poverty reduction initiative that includes equally those who live in poverty alongside those with the power to help.

The poverty industry can also be a barrier to its own stated goal of eliminating poverty. Recommendations in poverty reduction reports read like a wish list of funding proposals with little connection to addressing core issues. For example, one report started their recommendations list noting a need for "reduced complexity" yet then suggests an "expanded array of supports."

Let’s be honest: if poverty were eliminated, many organizations and services would not be needed, and others would be needed less. When NGOs become businesses chasing funds to sustain themselves, and when governments, funders, and donors dangle carrots to play follow the leader, this moves everyone toward the fad of the day rather than to seriously address the problem.

Studies are clear: the savings from eliminating poverty would be enormous, reducing costs associated with health care, addictions, policing, and so on. It will take political will and daring to actualize those savings. But initiatives to eliminate poverty cannot simply be a forum for the poverty industry to ask the public for more funds.

When the Sheldon Chumir Foundation interviewed people living in poverty they told us they would do much better if they just had a bit more money.

This incredibly simple idea is backed by research: with greater funds, people living in poverty can afford their groceries, rent and security deposits, transportation to work, and their lives are considerably less stressful.

As a result, they use less health care, are less reliant on addictive substances, require fewer social services, are more motivated to achieve greater education, and have more resources and better drive to seek better jobs.

These benefits can be delivered without needing extra social workers, food banks, or charitable programs. Senators Hugh Segal and Art Eggleton make this point and suggest various options such as a basic income through a negative income tax that would give money directly to people who need it. This is exactly what people living in poverty who we interviewed requested, but "community leaders" too often ignore this idea.

It takes courageous leadership to include and listen to those less fortunate than ourselves, or to enact strategies that go against our ideologies and personal or political interests when we discover our initial ideas were wrong.

I remain a cynic when it comes to poverty reduction initiatives. They should not simply appeal to a few donors, funders, or politicians when this is not what those in poverty really need.

We can do much better. Demanding much higher standards on addressing poverty and inequality within our midst is the right thing to do. Seriously addressing poverty won’t happen until we make it clear that poverty is ethically unacceptable and display a bold willingness to lead differently to actually eliminate it.


Kelly Ernst is senior program director with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.


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