The Real Issue

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Spoiler Alert: it's poverty.

Tonight I was lucky enough to attend a public discussion on poverty as part of the Real Issue Conversation Series at the London Foodbank. The Real Issue is an innovative campaign being run by several organizations in London to generate a frank and honest discussion about poverty in our city. The discussion tonight was thought provoking and engaging, with some particularly inspiring and creative ideas from James Shelley about integrating support systems within our everyday life rather than segregating the Haves from the Have Nots.

Now I need to take a second or two to rant. Feel free to wander away now if you please.

While the focus of the meeting was to try developing creative solutions, it’s the more philosophical piece that’s left my brain clunking along for the past two hours. Cheryl (of VortexVisual fame) started the night off with the hardest question of all: why does poverty exist?

I’ve been thinking about this all night and, in my mind, I think one of the key factors is competition. Modern western society has marched boldly forward under the mantra that competition solves all. Without competition we’re told innovation would stagnate, advancement would stall, markets would collapse and the communists would win. From a young age, we’re shown that competition is a good thing. For example, sports are fun because sometimes you win and that’s what we all want to be, winners, because winning is “success.” But as we move off the school yards and into office spaces, it becomes harder to tabulate the winners and the losers but we must subject ourselves to this ranking because it’s all we’ve ever known. Money gives us a quantifiable way to differentiate people, but how do you represent that? Well, the most obvious way is through materialism. So we spend and spend and spend, buying products to peacock our winning ways to all who will watch or maybe just to prove to ourselves that we’re winners. If to earn money is to be successful and, ultimately, to win, then to live in poverty is to lose and no one likes a loser. To make matters worse, things like Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program (welfare, essentially) are seen as being “unfair,” because those of us not on State support have to work hard to make money and prove we’re winners. Those who are on OW are seen as leeches, draining on the system and getting a free ride. Notice how many articles you see in the paper about people scamming the system or getting rich off panhandling? Know how often it happens in real life? I think what really bothers us is that it’s not a fair fight against someone is getting stuff for free. Having said that, anyone that’s ever tried to live on OW knows that NO ONE willingly decides to live that life. No one.

And what about the politicians? Why don’t they step in to end poverty? Again, competition; they want to win the next election and who can blame them when the only way we talk about politics is as a horse race and not intellectual discourse. Yes, every election must end with someone winning and, by inference, others losing, but these thoughts of win/lose have become the dominant paradigm of politics. Debates become boxing matches, not exchanging and comparing ideas, because newspapers can sell that–they want jabs and low blows with winners and losers because that’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves since our time on the school year. Is that really politics? Is that the truth of city hall? Is it just about winning? Personally, I don’t think so, but that appears to be the dominant perspective. Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought the point of politics was to represent the will of the people and work together to make our community a better place.

That is the true definition of “winning.”

So do you want to know how I think we need to tackle the problem of poverty? The first step is to stop competing with each other, let go of these win/lose paradigms and start working together like decent human beings!