Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Persistent Poverty

[Jamie Swift, Brice Balmer, and Mira Dineen. Persistent Poverty: Voices From the Margins. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2010.]

This book is a simple one -- well done within its particular bounds, the product of a lot of hard work by many people, and as a text quite straightforward. Yet I found it quite emotionally complicated to read, and was ultimately left frustrated and sad by what it isn't and what it doesn't try to do.

The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) is a grouping of people and institutions in Ontario that are committed to social justice and that are grounded in a variety of faiths. The group first formed during the vicious assault on people living in poverty by the Conservative government of Premier Mike Harris in the late 1990s. At that point and since then they have worked hard to rouse the conscience of the people of Ontario to the conditions of people living in poverty, which Harris worsened significantly and which Dalton McGuinty's Liberals have done little to improve in the years since -- a few small technical tweaks and token dollar amounts, but a just a few grains of sand compared to the scale of the problem.

Periodically, ISARC has done what they call a "social audit," and this book comes out of the latest such process, done in 2010. They held hearings with people living in poverty in 26 different communities across Ontario in 2010, including both urban and rural communities in the province though few or no Aboriginal and Northern communities. The focus is on providing a space where the harsh realities of poverty in Ontario are spoken by the people who live them. As such, the input provided in the hearings is used in combination with policy and sociological data in 18 short chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of the problem -- social assistance, low-wage employment, the experiences of immigrants, employment standards, food security, poverty and health, housing, and many others.

I have never lived in poverty myself -- at least, not beyond the very shallow and transient poverty into which some middle-class lives briefly dip at certain stages. But many of the things I have done since I graduated from university have helped me clear away at least some of the resilient ignorance that a middle-class upbringing creates in so many of us when it comes to poverty, including doing grassroots anti-poverty activism in both Hamilton and Sudbury, working for a couple of years doing funded community-based research related to poverty issues, and through all of this having friends, family, allies, and comrades living exactly the sort of realities discussed in this book.

Part of my emotional response to the book, then, is a kind of bubbling mixture of anger, paralysis, and despair -- an echo of things I have felt in so many moments as people I know have been buffeted back and forth and had their realities tightly hemmed in by stupid, arbitrary welfare and disability rules; by heartless, exploitative employers; by the power of welfare officials to indiscriminately get the rules wrong when they can't be bothered to be sure and to act abusively towards their 'clients' when they're having a bad day, all with relative impunity; and by the willful, callous obliviousness of so many middle-class Ontarians to the realities of living in poverty and their frequent refusal to understand those realities even when they are presented clearly and directly. It was so clear that so many of the changes brought in by the Harris Tories were enacted with full knowledge of the pain they would bring to people's lives. Many people predicted this. Then many people pointed to it as it was happening. Yet the majority of middle-class people in Ontario found ways not to care, not to be outraged, not even to know, as their tax cuts were bought with other people's pain. (An iconic example for me: I remember many years ago when I was walking in downtown Hamilton with a few friends, including a very warm and loving and compassionate but not terribly political young middle-class white woman. Someone approached us asking for spare change. This companion's short but intense diatribe immediately after the person moved on managed to pack in so much ignorance, so much poor-bashing, so much venom, from someone so interpersonally kind, that I was left flabbergasted.)

While I read this book, I also felt encouraged. This work happened, it happened well, and the layer of people doing it demonstrated a commitment to continue to amplify the voices of marginalized people in this province and to prod the public conscience with these harsh realities. The kind of community-based research that I did for a living for a couple of years partially involved producing exactly this kind of material, so I know that it is a lot of work, and it isn't easy. It is easy for the voices of the people whose experiences are nominally at the centre to be lost from focus, and that did not generally (again, with certain limitations in mind) happen here. So both the skill exhibited in preparing this document and the relentless persistence of the ISARC folks and their allies in witnessing and acting for social justice, despite the general decomposition of movements in Ontario since the Harris era, are encouraging.

However, this was tightly twined with a melancholy that not only is exactly the same work necessary as was ten or fifteen years ago, but the essential details of the experiences of people living in poverty are pretty much the same as when I first did grassroots anti-poverty work in the late '90s or when I was doing community-based research in an agency between 2001 and 2003. Yes, the details of a few programs have changed, but the shape of people's lives have not. At all. Which is enraging.

Perhaps the most complicated focus of my complicated emotions, though, is the specific kind of document that this book is. Though prodding the public conscience is one goal of this work, it is clearly intended to be done in the form of a document that can be taken up by the processes that organize state practices around poverty issues. Documents of this sort have a history and throughout that history have been forced by the very desire of their creators to inform state practices in capitalist, liberal-democratic contexts to follow certain norms. There is a spectrum -- those produced within governments have somewhat different requirements than those produced by academics which are different in turn from those produced in the voluntary sector, and there is variation within each as well. This specific book is towards the better end of that range in that it places a lot of emphasis on the words and experiences of people who experience poverty (though at least a small proportion of such documents, such as some produced in funded anti-racism contexts, manage to include a more robust politics and to escape some of the erasures described below). Yet the overarching constraint imposed by the desire to be seen as legitimate to those making decisions in policy-making contexts remains.

This means that documents in this range of traditions can talk, for example, about impacts and costs, and even about the experiences of particular individuals and groups. Attention paid to specificities in experience is usually in a classificatory rather than an analytical way -- poverty means X in rural areas, Y for immigrants, Z in terms of health, for instance, but little that goes beyond subdivided description. It may have its limits, but it is still useful. (The omission of any mention of queer people in this book is notable, given certain vital intersections between queerness and poverty, such as in youth homelessness. This is perhaps related to the fact that many faith-based contexts are still subject to internal struggles to find what the Protestant social gospel tradition calls the 'prophetic voice' on the issue -- a disappointing silence nonetheless.)

Such documents also have room to propose technocratic fixes. They can suggest increases in dollar amounts here, changes in policy there, new programs over there. Again, bounded but still useful. The ground for all of this is rarely spelled out explicitly, but underlying it all is an assumed social democracy. It may be a thoroughgoing social democracy or a social democratic tweak to an overall neoliberalism, depending on the origins of the document, but the consistent idea is that state action that addresses symptoms and not root causes is the best response to social problems.

And despite all the criticisms of the limitations of social democracy you could find by reading the last five years worth of writing on this blog, I still think it is important to see the value in this kind of document. The foregrounding of experience is important. The emphasis on technocratic fixes may be very limited in some ways, but in order to have a chance of success on its own terms it must be grounded in an understanding of people's lives that is likely to be more nuanced than those produced by many leftist politicos with grander visions but less immediate pressure to attend to details. Meeting immediate needs in a practical, achievable way (ideally in the course of broader struggle) matters a lot, whatever else is happening. Attending to everyday experience and to practicalities is also important to inform political action, and documents like this provide a tool to do that to people approaching it with a wide range of analyses, and that matters too. And for all that some radicals sometimes pooh-pooh it, appealing to conscience can be one important element in a broader range of ways to try and leverage change, and this book provides a tool to do that too.

Yet the pressures to which people preparing research documents on social issues must respond if they wish their work to have a chance of being taken seriously in processes that produce social policy have very serious implications. For instance, given this starting point of wanting to be useful to the institutions that rule us, it is quite natural that such documents are easily pulled into the standpoint of those institutions in how they talk about issues. Indeed, many such documents only and always reflect that standpoint. This book, with its consistent attention to everyday experiences of people living in poverty, is less captured by the standpoint of ruling relations than many, but it still can't escape.

At the most general level, this means that so much of the social relations that create poverty remain unnamed, unmarked, unquestioned in this book. This silence is so normal in this kind of document that to suggest it might be otherwise is to risk being taken as a hopeless dreamer or an untrustworthy ideologue. Yet why should we accept unchallenged the socially constructed but natural-seeming divisions in kinds of knowledge that make it a matter of course that certain topics are out of bounds for a document such as this -- it will describe the plight of the poor and perhaps some of the ways in which their experiences are organized in general terms and how the suffering in those experiences might be more effectively mitigated at the level of symptoms, but it will not engage in much analysis of how it was produced in the first place. So the causes over poverty and how to create change get filled in by the assumptions of the reader. Difficult discussions about why things are the way they are, who benefits, what kinds of changes (beyond the social democratic) might be more effective, and how changes can be brought about, are not triggered by reading it. And, yes, proposing final answers to all of those questions in the text would be foolish, but refusing to start the difficult discussions as we try to prod the conscience of the public feels kind of like giving up before we even begin.

There are more specific examples of this book being unable to resist the pull of the standpoint of ruling relations. For example, at different points the text fluctuates in how it orients itself towards the minor changes made by the provincial Liberals in recent years. There is a pressure -- one that I noted repeatedly when I was doing this kind of work in the agency sector -- to make the action by the state or para-state agency the reference point, and show its impacts in terms of people served or beds created or money disbursed. Doing this emphasizes what is being done and downplays reference to how well it actually addresses the problem. The alternative is to make the experiences of people living in poverty the reference point, which in many instances would make it clear how minor, even trivial, various reforms are compared to the need that is out there. In this book, it felt like there was an unsettled tension between showing supposedly proper gratitude for crumbs versus pointing out how utterly inadequate they are, which showed up in different ways in multiple places in this text. That is, even though I'm sure every single contributor would, in private, acknowledge that the Liberal response in their two terms of office has been disappointing (at least to those foolish enough to expect big things from Liberals) and woefully inadequate, the text still could not break entirely, in every instance, with using the actions of the state as the reference point rather than the experiences of people living in poverty.

Another unfortunate and unnecessary but potentially politically telling example of stumbling into ruling perspectives is the approving reference on the final page of the book to the "moral treatment" of the phenomena that are often understood as mental illness. The "moral treatment" was developed by English Quakers in the 19th century and had nominally humanistic intent. It is used in the text as an example of the ways in which people of faith concerned with human wellbeing can produce positive reforms. Critical historians of psychiatry have shown, however, that the "moral treatment" was more of a shift in the character of practices of domination rather than end to them. So perhaps what this example inadvertently illustrates is the danger of good intent grounded in an uncritical sense of 'good conscience' that is unmoored from analysis and from a commitment to following the lead of those most directly affected by the oppression in question.

Other things were just absent. For instance, an excellent history of one aspect of Ontario's social assistance system showed that even before the Harris assault on the poor, welfare in the province was heavily involved in moral regulation of those receiving it, especially of women. This kind of regulation has always been harsh and punitive. Yet this oppressive character of the welfare system even at its highpoint in the province was largely ignored in this book. Actually talking about it would make it clear that the reforms being proposed in this book are important to meeting needs, but that there are much larger questions that will not go away just by restoring parts of the welfare state. Moreover, the tendency to talk about specificities of experience in descriptive but not analytical ways means that the ways in which patriarchy and white supremacy (e.g. 1, 2) have always been integral to the welfare state in Canada are completely absent from the book. And there may have been one or two passing references to the fact that some powerful people and institutions in society benefit from the widespread experience of poverty, but this central obstacle to addressing the issue even by conventional social democratic means was mostly ignored in the book, and its political implications were never raised.

Starting from the experiences of ordinary people and looking at the relations and institutions that rule them can be a powerful way of generating knowledge for change. This book and others like it go part way to doing that because of their commitment to foregrounding the voices of people living in poverty and their focus on recommending policy and program changes. Yet the commitment to producing social policy discourse that will be at least potentially acceptable to the state and moral suasion that will not alienate privileged Ontarians by mixing in politics that seem too radical means that there are serious limits to producing the knowledge that might be of most political use to people living in poverty themselves and their organizations and movements.

And so I am conflicted. Though I am not a religious person myself, I have great respect for political allies who ground their social justice work in faith. I think this book is important and necessary and well done, and it is heartening that there is this collection of people who are refusing to be still and silent in the face of the intransigence of Ontario's elites and the disinterest of the middle class. Calls on conscience are important and radicals shouldn't dismiss social democratic reforms that would alleviate suffering when we have nothing that is obviously and practically better to offer at this moment. (Though, of course, we shouldn't restrict ourselves to such reforms either.) So I think the choice to place this research within particular moral and state-centric discourse is entirely understandable, given the situation we face. Yet I also remain convinced that we need so much more -- so much more when it comes to knowledge production in the service of social change, and so much more when it comes to actions that might lead us down a path that would have a chance of ending those gut-wrenching, painful, infuriating moments that are part of living in poverty in 21st century Canada.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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