They didn’t know they were poor

When we drove up to my Jesuit prep school's father-son dinner in my father's battered service truck with the name Dougherty's Service and a Phillips 66 logo on the side, I wanted to be someone else.

When we drove up to my Jesuit prep school’s father-son dinner in my father’s battered service truck with the name Dougherty’s Service and a Phillips 66 logo on the side, I wanted to be someone else.

The parking lot had already filled, mainly with the new, shiny cars of other dads who were lawyers, doctors and other professionals. Instead of being proud of my family’s sacrifices to insure that I had a good education, I was embarrassed by our, of course, relative lower-middle-class poverty. Almost five decades later, this memory remains vivid.

Some years later, on the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico I learned a key lesson about poverty and its effects when I spent the winter there in 1974-75. In the small, spread-out settlement of Barrio Carite on the southern slopes of the Sierra de Cayey everyone shared basically the same lifestyle. Small, 20-hectare farms clung to steep mountain slopes. Families often with 10 or more children managed to get by on what the soil, climate and their own hard work plus ingenuity provided.

These people, though far below my family in terms of real income and material possessions, did not act poor. They exhibited none of the angst or envy, none of the pathologies often associated with poverty. The citizens of Barrio Carite truly seemed healthy and happy. Maybe this was because they just didn’t know that they were poor.

The Yukon Anti-Poverty Coalition’s Poverty and Homelessness Action Week, October 15 to 19, has chosen Mind the Gap as the central theme for an ambitious calendar of events (yapc.ca). It seeks to draw attention to their core belief that improving the health and well-being of our society depends in large measure on working on lessening inequalities in income, housing, food security and educational opportunity. Hard academic research backs up their contention.

The British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, authors of the The Spirit Level, argue persuasively that lessening socio-economic inequalities in society contribute to healthier and happier communities in Global North and South alike. The Equality Trust website provides further reading on this important subject at www.equalitytrust.org.uk/why

Professor Wilkinson in a The Huffington Post Canada interview last May argued that economic growth alone will not address the destructively widening gap between rich and poor in North America. “There’s no doubt that the big reason for the income differences (is) not so much the poor getting left further behind, it’s the rich running away from the rest of us with the bonus culture.”

Wilkinson points out that this “reflects a lack of democracy; people at the top feeling that they can do what they like, that they’re not accountable. We must answer that by making them accountable.”

Joseph Wresinski, a French-Polish priest and lifelong crusader against poverty, launched the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 25 years ago in the Trocadero Human Rights Plaza in Paris on October 17, 1987. Before 100,000 people from every social background and continent, Father Wresinski unveiled a commemorative stone engraved with a clarion call to all of us: “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.” The future health and happiness of our communities in the Yukon demands no less of us.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

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