“We cannot wait for the poor to knock on our door,” Pope Francis tells us in his message for World Day of the Poor. We must reach out to where they are. Photo by Michael Swan

‘Truth about poverty is complicated’

  • November 11, 2021

We are divided, sorted, separated. As the gaps between us grow, society slides into the abstract. Our concrete reality is the opposite of society. Day to day we experience life as individuals. We live in a tight circle of economic security that revolves around our lonely selves.

In his fifth annual message for World Day of the Poor, Nov. 14, Pope Francis pleads with us to get over ourselves, break out and encounter the poor.

“We cannot wait for the poor to knock on our door,” the Pope writes. “We need urgently to reach them in their homes, in hospitals and nursing homes, on the streets and in the dark corners where they sometimes hide, in shelters and reception centres.”

The Pope’s argument isn’t that this will make us better people or better Catholics, though it might. He doesn’t argue that including the poor in our social circles and our daily lives will broaden our horizons or bring us to wisdom, though it might. The Pope is worried about what kind of society we are building behind the walls that separate us from the poor.

“If the poor are marginalized, as if they were to blame for their condition, then the very concept of democracy is jeopardized and every social policy will prove bankrupt,” he said.

Actual poverty in Canada has been in historic retreat over the past few decades, as it has also been declining globally, said Peter Ibbott, King’s University College associate director of the economics program.

“The truth about poverty is complicated,” he said.

A February 2021 Statistics Canada report said about 3.7 million Canadians, or 10 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line. That’s down from 14.5 per cent in 2015.

While demand from a generation of highly-skilled tech workers is driving up housing prices in Toronto, which is North America’s fastest growing technology hub, the city may seem completely unaffordable. Our wealth has become unmanageable, overwhelming, while poverty on the street is more visible. The homeless resort to tents and sleeping bags in parks and public squares. They confront us at traffic lights and outside the LCBO.

“The bottom line is that poverty has not been rising,” Ibbott said. “It is still too high, but by most measures it has not recently increased. Child poverty appears to have declined because of new federal child benefits.”

Inflation — too much money chasing too few goods — is actually a side effect of our wealth. Our pandemic problems have centred on how we redistribute our wealth and adjust the rules of work.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on our economy and we do not know what the impact on poverty will be,” said Ibbott.

But we do know the poor are there, because the virus forces us to look at the places where Pope Francis has told us we will find the poor — nursing homes, hospitals, shelters, etc. If COVID has changed the way we work, then it has exposed us to a little of the instability the poor have faced all their lives.

“There are many reasons why people are poor. The biggest reason is low labour market earnings,” said Ibbott. “International trade has been offshoring jobs for many years now. It is not new. Robotics and computers have similarly been impacting labour markets for decades now. It is not new. In fact, this process of technological disruption has been going on for 250 years. It is not new.”

Global trade and digital technology have rewired the connections that make society.

“We have become a much more individualistic society. We don’t know our neighbours in the way that we used to. So there’s this fragmentation or atomization of society,” said St. Jerome’s University sociologist David Seljak. “Social connections for people in poverty are much worse than they are for others. It’s one of the reasons why people who are poor do so much worse on all measures of health — mental and physical health.”

The poor are the unconnected. They are people global capitalism doesn’t need.

“If they don’t add to the bottom line, then they are simply excluded,” Seljak said. “We used to think that exploitation was the worst thing that could happen under this international system of free trade. It turns out there’s something worse, being completely excluded. That’s what Francis is talking about, that the excluded become unknown.”

As a Franciscan who has embraced voluntary poverty, Fr. Joachim Ostermann sees the poor on the streets of Montreal — the ones who have been abandoned to their unemployment, mental illness, addictions and afflictions. He admits that he has no more idea how to respond to them than anybody else.

“Sometimes I talk to myself and say, ‘At least this person didn’t become an investment banker,’ ” Ostermann said.

Franciscan poverty can teach us a thing or two about our own poverty.

“I do believe the Franciscan tradition is critically important today,” said Ostermann, whose new book Remembering Francis is out this month. “Today’s society is wholly dominated by a technical, scientific outlook. We think of poverty and the first question we ask ourselves is, ‘How do we fix it?’ And, ‘How do we mould the economy so that everybody is rich?’ As opposed to simply giving thanks to God for life — for our own life, for the life of the poor, for the opportunity to help another person. It can be wonderful to help another person.”

“It is not a question of easing our conscience by giving alms,” writes Pope Francis. “But of opposing the culture of indifference and injustice we have created with regard to the poor.”v

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