Does the following story sound familiar? In a country going through rough economic times, a man steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children. He is caught and punished but the punishment seems so disproportionate to the crime. Despite this violation of the law, the man seems decent. Through an act of personal charity and kindness extended to him, he goes on to exemplify the best of what a human being can be. Society manages to establish the rule of law, but seems to somehow have lost its true measure.
No, this is not the story of Jean Valjean. This is a story that unfolds in a modern Canadian city in 2011. A man works in a grocery store stocking shelves – let’s call him Jim. He wife works at another minimum wage-paying job. We’ll call her Pat. Together they have three children. If you pause to work out the math, between the two of them they earn – before tax, $38,437 a year, assuming they work 50 weeks per year and never miss a day. Their jobs do not provide “benefits”. After rent, transportation and food, there is precious little left at the end of the pay cheque for clothing, school supplies..etc.. But they both struggle along and persist because they refuse to become “unemployed”.
At the height of the flu season, Pat misses three days of work because of being unwell. At the end of that week, she is back at work, but Jim gets a call from her at his work. She had just gotten home and was thinking to get the kids’ lunch prepared early for the following school day. There is nothing in the fridge and Pat asks Jim if he could pick up some deli meat and cheese on his way home. Small problem: it’s near the end of the pay period and both are flat broke.
It’s a tough situation. Jim has never stolen anything in his life before. He agonizes over what he is about to do but he thinks he has few options. So he takes a package of deli meat and a package of sliced cheese and he puts them in his jacket pocket. As he is leaving the building, he is confronted by a security guard who tell him he was observed stealing. Out come the deli meat and cheese packages and Jim is given the choice to resign or be fired on the spot. Not wanting the indignity of being fired, he chooses to resign.
The city is going through some rough economic times and Jim looks for work but 4 months later – nada… and so he is collecting EI…. and so now, this family of five is subsisting on a total income of less than $30K per year. Whereas they had squeaked by before, now they are in real trouble.
This is a true story…some of the details have been changed, but it is, nevertheless, very much a true story. I want to be clear: I am not, in any way, shape or form, condoning theft. Nor am I commenting on whether it was appropriate for the employer to fire Jim (reminder again – not his real name). Nevertheless, it is a tragic story.
What makes this and other stories of poverty in our society even more tragic is that poverty is entirely eradicable. I was recently pointed to a report produced by the Senate (yes, that body actually does produce some good things) called In From The Margins: A Call to Action. The report suggests that better policy choices can result in lifting families and individuals out of poverty AND reduce government spending/save money.
Many people fall in the trap of saying that there is no real poverty in Canada. That may be true if our comparator group is poverty in India, Africa or elsewhere. But it is not and it should not be. One definition of poverty that I recently came across speaks to the inadequacy of resources that forces the poor to live on the margins of society, unable to have the opportunities that an average member of society has.
I was motivated to write this piece after hearing the story above last week. Coincidentally (meaning occurring at the same time) the launch of a religious social action coalition to fight poverty in London, ON took place this week. It is modelled on a similar effort that started in Newfoundland (http://candidatesagainstpoverty.ca/). The coalition brings together many faith groups including the Muslim community, many Christian denominations and the Jewish community (http://spon.ca/london-tests-power-of-prayer-in-bid-to-close-rich-poor-gap/2011/04/17/).
The launch was held at the London Muslim Mosque and included presentations by Martha Powell of theLondon Community Foundation and Ross Fair, Executive Director of the Community Services Department of the City of London. Both presentations were inspiring and went a long way to show that poverty is a real problem but for which there are real solutions.
It’s been often said that the true measure of a society lies in how it provides for the poor. We don’t do a bad job, but we still have a very very long way to go. Look up your city’s poverty reduction strategy and see how you can contribute to it.