Poverty Isn’t a Problem to Be Fixed

By Derek Cook on November 16th, 2016

Poverty isn't a problem to be fixed

From the Catalyst, Winter 2016

There isn’t enough to go around.

This is the fear that drives us. It is the fear of governments who try to tackle problems with limited means. It is the fear of every household that struggles from paycheque to paycheque.

And it is the dilemma I face downtown when I am confronted by person after person asking for spare change. The demands seem limitless and my pockets so small.

Do I continue to throw my few pebbles into this ocean? Or do I try to distinguish between these limitless demands and discern where my money will do the most good?

Or, like many, I may just become overwhelmed and stop seeing those asking for change. I will refuse to stop and listen when someone approaches me because there is little I can do anyway. And, frankly, I most often don’t have the time as I am rushing to some meeting or appointment. Time, after all, is money and both are in short supply.

Or, perhaps, I might think deeper. It may occur to me, if I stop and ponder, that many of the people I meet on the street are indigenous. This observation might lead to easy stereotypes. But it might also prompt questions about how this happened. If I explore further, I might come to learn that it is not just indigenous people living in poverty. It is also racialized persons, persons with disabilities, women, and recent immigrants who are disproportionately among those we call poor. And they are not all just on the streets.

When I start to think in this way, I might begin to reflect on the systemic causes of poverty. And this may lead me to get involved in advocacy efforts to demand that the government fix this problem.

With a national anti-poverty strategy in the works, we might have hope that our government will indeed begin the daunting task of fixing the problem of poverty. They might develop policies, pilot new programs, and study best practices to find out what has worked before. This will be important if we are to allocate our scarce public resources efficiently. Not only would this help the most disadvantaged, we know it would also save us money in the long term.

But approaching poverty as a problem begs us to fix it.

Fixing poverty inevitably involves reallocating scarce resources to get money to those at the bottom. So we dissect and define who is at the bottom and then design solutions and target interventions to those most in need. We may devise training programs for indigenous youth or employment readiness strategies for recent immigrants. We will create objectives and define outcomes that can be measured, monitored, and evaluated to ensure accountability and show the social return on our investment. And therein lies the real trauma of poverty.

At its root, poverty is not about money but about distorted and marred relationships. It is about the divisions we create between “us” and “them” when we see life as a competition for scarce resources. And so poverty reduction efforts must aim to create a community where the distinctions between “us” and “them” no longer matter.

Because poverty isn’t a problem that needs to be fixed; it is a wound that needs to be healed.

It is a wound in the flesh of community that labels and separates us into competitive fearful camps. And it wounds all of us.

When I’m able to walk past someone asking for change and make them invisible, I am wounded. Whenever I am so hurried and harried making ends meet that I have no time for my community, I am wounded. Whenever I group and label people as poor, marginalized, lazy, or deserving, or treat them as objects of my charity, I am wounded.

If we tried to heal poverty instead of fix it, we might be able to come together in our mutual brokenness and affirm our common humanity. We might acknowledge our fear and the truth that we are all in need of healing.

And when we focus on healing the marred relationships that have disfigured our community and corrupted the meaning of our shared humanity, we might also discover that our scarce resources aren’t as scarce as we had feared, and there is enough to go around after all.

Derek Cook is the director of the Canadian Poverty Institute at Ambrose University in Calgary. He also serves on the Board of Directors of Canada Without Poverty, co-leaders with CPJ in the Dignity for All campaign.