Sunday, August 28, 2005

Why Dietary Supplement Clinics?

A current facet of anti-poverty organizing in Ontario, originated by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, is the organization of temporary, grassroots clinics to facilitate people getting a dietary supplement allowance added on to their social assistance cheque. Provincial regulations allow certain healthcare professionals to determine that recipients, for the sake of their health, should have access to a portion of additional income for the purpose of augmenting their diets. Though the original intent of this provision was to allow people with certain kinds of pre-existing health problems to qualify for extra food money, it is being recognized by increasing numbers of medical professionals that Ontario social assistance rates are so low that anyone trying to pay rent, eat, and pay other expenses will almost invariably have to have a diet that is poor enough to have health implications. Enough health care professionals recognize this that OCAP (and, increasingly, other groups around the province) have been able to win increased benefits for a much broader cross-section of the people whose health is being harmed by low social assistance rates. The City of Toronto is engaged in an ongoing campaign of regulatory manouevering to try and prevent all of the people who need supplementary food money from actually receiving it, and the struggles continues. There is some interest in applying this tactic in Sudbury; further decisions will be made about this possibility in a week or two.

I have noticed that, all too often, folks engaging in activities to create social change often don't ask ourselves why we are engaging in a particular activity -- it often feels intuitively obvious, and indeed it may be. But I think there is some benefit to going through the exercise regardless.

I have come up with three reasons why the dietary supplement clinics are a useful thing for anti-poverty activists to be doing.

  1. The first and second reasons are almost different ways of saying the same thing. The first reason is an in-your-gut, instinctive, see-it-and-do-it ethical reaction, an expression of basic human decency: There is need, there is a means to address it, and it would be wrong not to do so.

  2. The second is, in a way, the first put in more political terms. Dietary supplement clinics are a way to take direct action -- that is, action which is intended to achieve a desired result directly, and not through attempting to change the consciousness of other human beings -- that, in a small way, nudges the institutions which regulate the distribution of wealth in our society towards justice. Though the taxation system is not anywhere near as progressive as it could and should be, redistributing money obtained from that system in this way ensures that a slightly greater proportion of the wealth produced by society goes to those who are most aggressively deprived of access to it.

  3. One of the most important rhetorical weapons that the left has, particularly in a country where systems of social control have almost always had a liberal-democratic flavour to them and the national narrative is self-consciously liberal in nature, is to demonstrate how often, how intensely, and how systemically liberalism fails to live up to its stated ideals. There are lots of Canadians who couldn't care less whether poor people's health is being destroyed by lack of access to income, but there are also lots of ordinary, apolitical but decent and fair-minded folk who really believe that the current way things work is basically decent and fair, and who respond with outrage (or at least quiet disapproval) if indecency and unfairness can be demonstrated well enough.

    We can write policy briefs and articles and blogs to show this, but the best way to advance that idea is to challenge systems of power in a material way to choose between living up to the rhetoric or demonstrating more obviously that some violation of liberal principles is planned and deliberate. This can win enough support from enough people to win specific campaigns, and to force the state and economic institutions to make compromises they would rather not have to make. Dietary supplement clinics invoke professional authority to support the lived experience of social assistance recipients in a way that the state has to respond to. The state can openly admit that welfare regimes, or at least the current version in Ontario, are designed for recipients to suffer ill effects because of the importance to market economies of having people needy enough to do horrible work for minimal money and to reduce the bargaining power of labour; it can live up completely to liberal rhetoric and provide recipients with enough money to pay rent and eat well, against the wishes of elites and business; or it can try and find some way to preserve liberal appearances while making an absolute minimum of material concessions. Obviously this last one is almost invariably the decision of NDP and Liberal governments (and many Conservative governments) in Canada. If the sentiment generated by pointing out inconsistencies between liberal-democratic rhetoric and practice is intense enough, important reforms can be won.

There may be other good reasons for using this tactic, too; and there be reasons against using. If you have one, I'd be interested in hearing it!


Chris said...

Interesting and timely post. Good point about the failures of liberal-democracies to live up to their own ideals.

I'd add just one:

1) A lot of people are fucking hungry in Ontario.

Scott said...

Mmm...very true...more or less what I was getting at in (1) in the original post, but said much more directly and to the point. Thanks!

Scott said...

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