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

Addendum: Building Alliances Against Poverty in Canada

By Harold Lavender

In recent years the enormous gulf between the rich and poor in Canada has been exposed by a growing movement that focuses on pushing for government policy changes with the goal of addressing or even eliminating poverty. Campaigns from below can sometimes create sufficient pressure to prompt responses like the report of the federal parliamentary committee. We need to be very vigilant to make sure the Harper government is not merely playing lip service to anti-poverty groups’ demands with no intention of real action. But any measures that actually meet the needs of low-income communities should be celebrated.

But as Augusta Dwyer demonstrates, viewed at a global scale anti-poverty approaches from above have failed to stem the tide of inequality and injustice. At best they merely prod and train the poor to become more adaptable. For those deemed threatening there is expanded funding for more policing and prisons.

The Canadian government deserves little respect for its “poverty alleviation” work internationally or domestically. The relative wealth of the Canadian state only highlights the obscenity of people in this country being allowed to go homeless, hungry and without basic necessities.

Dwyer notes that there exist many inspiring examples of community based anti-poverty struggles from below around the globe. Examples in Canada are the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, and sections of the indigenous, immigrant and women’s movements. What can be learned from these experiences in building a successful movement against poverty in the Canadian state?

Poor people need to lead the fight against poverty and have control over the key decisions that affect their communities and their lives. Strong and rooted community organizations are best able to understand and support self-organization by poor people around their basic needs and interests.

Some issues can be dealt with through the process of building vibrant communities in which all people can live in dignity. But others require resources from the state. This includes things like raising the rates of funds that the poor depend upon (such as minimum wage, unemployment benefits, welfare, pensions) and embarking on a large scale national program of construction of new social and affordable housing.

Poverty has many faces. But some groups are hit much harder than others, including indigenous peoples, people of colour, migrants, women, single parents, children and seniors. The fight against poverty is linked to the fight against all forms of oppression and discrimination.

Small struggles can sometimes spark wider movements but are not in isolation sufficient to drive change. Developing unity in action and making alliances are central to building a much larger and wider movement.

The Harper plan would have the poor find common interest with wealthy philanthropists, charities, developers and the educated middle class. A radical approach would seek a totally different set of alliances with oppressed groups and the working class.

The current insular and defensive nature of the labour movement, and the gulf between the living conditions of many unionized workers and the poor, make such an alliance difficult to envisage or realize. But this is the kind of solidarity that is necessary for achieving change. Capitalism creates more than enough wealth for everyone to live in dignity. But instead of distributing the wealth it condemns millions to poverty. Significant improvements in the lives of the poor will come not through government benevolence, but through sustained struggle from below.

Harold Lavender is a Vancouver-based activist and an editor of the New Socialist webzine