“Getting the Poor to Manage Their Poverty Better”: Poverty Alleviation Strategies from the Top

Although nothing concrete has come out so far, that a government as venal as Stephen Harper’s might support some spending on the poor in Canada should really come as no surprise. A distressingly visible indication that a system based on creating profit for a minority by exploiting the majority, poverty is a problem for capitalists. To be seen as doing something about it has long been a major plank in the public relations platforms of governments—not to mention corporations and individual billionaires—everywhere.

Yet as South African political scientist Mark Swilling put it, “the power of those who control the world’s resources depends on the systemic disempowerment of the global poor.” There are close to a billion people on the planet who are chronically malnourished, millions more who live in poverty. Yale professor Thomas Pogge calculates that of all deaths worldwide, one third are attributable to poverty-related causes. They are, he says, “traceable to injustice in the existing social order.”

In Canada, the government does not even try to measure poverty. Statistics Canada uses instead a “Low-Income Cut-off” (LICO) measure, which put some three million Canadians into a low-income bracket in 2008. As the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives recently pointed out however, that figure is based on information already out of date. Taking the current economy into account, it calculates that between 750,000 and 1.8 million people should be added to that number.

In a nation as wealthy as Canada, any number of families living in poverty is unacceptably high. And while anti-poverty organizations will welcome any attempt to build social housing and raise the income of the poor, top-down poverty alleviation obscures the central cause of poverty. It may channel some extra money toward those worst off, but it disregards what lies at the root of their situation. For that reason, it is destined to have little impact on poverty in Canada overall, just as billions in overseas development aid has done little to actually stem global poverty.

Why Hand-Outs Don’t Work

The failure of aid from rich nations to alleviate poverty in underdeveloped ones can provide a good illustration of why top-down hand-outs in Canada not only won’t work, but are not meant to.

First of all the gap between overseas development aid given to the global poor by rich nations—about $120 billion annually—and the amount they receive back is enormous. Including funds siphoned off by national elites in poor countries through embezzlement, corruption, tax evasion and phony trade pricing, Pogge estimates this “illicit money” is at least ten times more than all international aid. Recognizing unaccountable or illegitimate governments by purchasing their nations’ resources is another way of robbing the poor while decrying poverty.

What’s more, control over how aid dollars are spent, over how or even if aid projects really might make a difference in the lives of the poor, is in the hands of people unaccountable to them—or to the average citizen from whose taxes that money comes. For David Satterthwaite, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development, “The people whose needs justify the whole development industry are the people with the least power to influence development and to whom there is the least accountability in terms of what is funded and who gets funded.” The same case can be made for poverty alleviation in Canada.

By maintaining control of both international and domestic poverty-alleviation measures, states can ignore issues of social justice, and in doing so, keep alive the notion that the poor are irresponsible, incapable and unwilling to find solutions to poverty.

In Canada, the provision of welfare offers a good example of this. According to the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom, there are about 1.7 million Canadians receiving welfare benefits. These benefits are extremely low and over the past decades have been steadily cut. Yet rather than allowing people on social assistance to be more entrepreneurial and innovative in seeking solutions to their poverty, any extra money they earn is clawed back from their benefits.

This kind of regulatory condescension removes any incentive to take the first steps to something that might improve their future wellbeing in the long term, but for which there may be as yet no guarantee. Rather, the system makes not working at all preferable to losing a small but steady income from the government; it makes helplessness, or dependency, preferable to agency.

Another Way to Fight Poverty

Social movements around the world have shown another way of battling poverty, recognizing and struggling for both rights and resources. Their achievements in changing their lives by challenging landlessness, homelessness, inadequate education and unemployment provide an indication that, in Canada too, the communities of the poor can organize. They can set the terms of real debate and demand, not beg for, social and economic justice.

Yet for the Harper government, like national governments everywhere, the notion of the poor organizing to demand rights, resources and accountability is anathema. The amounts of public money the Tories are willing to spend on the poor segments of that public are designed to impress voters justifiably concerned about the fact that poverty exists within a wealthy nation. The spending is not designed to empower the poor to devise and implement solutions to their poverty.

Right now, most if not all official aid keeps control of poverty alleviation strategies in the hands of the wealthy, and notions of social justice out of the equation. And in the words of Sheela Patel, a leader of India’s slum dwellers movement, they “are just tinkering, just trying to get the poor to manage their poverty better.”

Augusta Dwyer is the author of Broke But Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and Their Radical Solutions to Poverty, Fernwood Publishing, forthcoming in May 2011.

*see next page for Harold Lavender’s addendum to this article