By Geoffrey Bateson
Poverty can destroy lives. There are, even in relatively wealthy and stable countries, far too many adults struggling with the impacts of poverty and far too many children growing up in families affected by poverty.
Are these things fixed, or are there ways to change things around for those people? Will the poor always be with us? Is it all their own fault, or the fault of the system? What, if anything, can be done to improve the chances of people not ending up forever in poverty?
Economics is clearly important, and yet even simple descriptions of what has been going on in international finance leaves many people confused. It all seems so big and uncontrollable – and that’s before the politics gets taken into account.
Political parties disagree about what to do about poverty. Attitudes to welfare bring strong arguments. What counts as a fair wage seems hard to agree on. How poverty affects everyday life is open to debate.
Looking at several recent pieces of research on economics and inequalities, there are some clear recurring trends.
There have always been big gaps between the top 20 per cent of earners and the bottom 20 per cent. What has been happening over the past generation is that these wealth and income gaps between people are widening. This raises serious questions about how big a gap is fair in modern Canadian society.
All sorts of links keep showing up between wealth inequalities and the overall health, employment and attitudes of different groups in society. The more people feel they are at the wrong end of a money-gap, the worse their life feels and the more various symptoms start to appear.
When tracking groups of children from childhood to adulthood it becomes obvious that poverty shapes a person’s life even from before birth. But things are not as fixed as this might imply. In fact, there is much we can do.
Different approaches are being taken. Some of these are at the level of national taxation and welfare. Some are at the level of company wages or how family-friendly work practices are. Some are about affordability of everyday necessities. Some are at the level of community support.
In many ways we know the things that have to be done if we want to live in a fairer, safer, more tolerant society. The question is, “So why are those things not being done?” Is there a lack of will among politicians and communities? Is there a meanness of spirit that is happy to see some groups fall further behind whilst others get ahead?
The problems can sometimes feel too big to tackle at their root causes, so it becomes simpler to keep on dealing with the day-to-day issues that people bring to us. Despite this there are a whole range of practical solutions that might be done locally to help fix the things that cause people to be continually exposed to the corrosive effects of severe poverty.
The education system has a strong role to play. This includes early-years work to support families, to get children off to a flying start and to get them school-ready.
It also means ensuring that poorer children do not get left behind during their key school years. There are things to be done to get students up to employable level, ready to take up the higher-skill/higher-wage jobs that will be needed in the future.
In all the focus on testing and qualifications it is sometimes overlooked that an important task for the education system is to make sure that children develop the social and emotional abilities to deal with what life has in store.
Geoffrey Bateson will speak about his work on Wednesday, Sept. 17 at 7 p.m., Ballroom B at the High Country Inn. He will also be hosting a town hall meeting at Yukon College on Wednesday,
Sept. 18, at noon in the theatre.