Last year, 851,014 Canadians used food banks on average each month, down marginally from 2010, but more than at any other time in history.
Though the poor are everywhere, the urban poor are the most visible, and even the most gilded cities have their share of the homeless and the hungry. One in 10 Calgarians live in poverty. In Lord Selkirk Park, home to most of Winnipeg’s aboriginal population, 68 per cent of residents live below the poverty line. By a curious coincidence, Winnipeg is also the murder capital of Canada, and has the highest incarceration rate in the country.
Federal and provincial governments have taken herculean measures to conquer poverty, so far with measured success. They’ve cut welfare rates to force the poor to work, introduced laws to put more poor people in prison and off the streets, imported cheap foreign labour to stabilize prices on macaroni and cat food, and slashed taxes for the rich on the principle that when there’s more money floating around the poor can grab whatever floats by.
And still the food banks are stretched to the limit. Why is this problem so intractable?
This week two prominent Westerners came forward with innovative ideas on how to address two of the ills associated with poverty: hunger and crime.
On Sunday, Alberta’s Wildrose Party Opposition Leader Danielle Smith tweeted her frustration that tainted meat from the XL plant was going to waste, and posed the question, “Is there no way to cook it so its safe and feed the hungry?” (On Twitter, syntax and punctuation are optional.)
A day later, Winnipeg’s acting Police Chief Devon Clunis asked, “What would happen if we all just truly – I’m talking about all religious stripes here – started praying for the peace of this city and then actually started putting some action behind that?”
Here is how great movements begin, with the blending of great ideas. In a better future, we’ll look back on this as the time we turned the corner on poverty, the day we iterated the two golden rules for serving the poor: feed them garbage, and pray. Just think how much spoiled food is thrown in the landfills and compost heaps every year which, if cooked properly and blessed by the gods, might be safe to feed to the hungry. Imagine a future where the crimes of poverty are obliterated by divine intervention and E. coli.
When you’re poised on the threshold of a dream, there are always questions to be asked. For instance, what happens when the tainted meat runs out? What if the hunger of the hungry outstrips the availability of garbage? Will we be reduced to feeding the poor on food that’s fit for human consumption, or will we have some meat tainted for them so they feel at home? Or will new, even more innovative sources of food have to be found? What, for instance, happens to all those rats they poison in the Prairie granaries? Is there no way to cook them to make them safe?
In any great movement, education is key. With proper teaching there are no end of food sources currently being ignored by social service agencies. Outreach vans could teach pigeon snaring, along with safe cooking practices. Drop-in centres could offer courses for street kids on how to safely slaughter and prepare their pit bulls for the table, first taking a moment to propitiate the appropriate deities.
For that matter, after the final prayer has been prayed over the homeless, why shouldn’t they be allowed to donate their remains – on a strictly voluntary basis of course – to feed those who survive them? Surely there’s a way?
There are other ways to deal with poverty and crime, tried and proven programs like social housing, better schools for poor kids, job training for poor adults, addiction treatment, school meals, neighbourhood renewal, and community policing to name a few. Studies have shown that these programs reduce crime and improve outcomes for people struggling to rise out of poverty.
The trouble with these liberal-minded solutions is that they’re not punitive. Poverty is a sin that must never go unpunished. If you’re not suffering in your poverty, what are you learning?
Let us pray that when we prey upon the poor, they don’t bite back. Let us pray that people who live in substandard housing and go to sleep hungry don’t take drugs and break into our cars. Let us feed them on offal we wouldn’t give our dogs and house them under bridges out of the rain.
It won’t make the country a better place, but at least they’ll be worse off than we are. You don’t want the poor getting above themselves.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.