Envisioning Canada without poverty

By  Joe Gunn, Catholic Register Special
  • September 18, 2008
{mosimage}The Catholic Register deserves our praise for printing three moving pages of Michael Swan’s portraits of poverty (“The human faces of poverty among us ,” Aug. 17-24). Swan reflects on the well-known passage, “The poor you will always have with you…” He wonders why we who profess to be followers of Jesus keep the poor out of sight and out of mind.
It occurred to me that the words of  Matthew 26:11 echo a passage of the Book of Deuteronomy, and should be understood in that context. Before the Bible states that there will always be people in need, it states that there should be no one in need: “However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, He will richly bless you” (Deut. 15: 4-5).

Sometimes our calling to do justice can seem like a daunting challenge for individuals. When poverty rates haven’t changed significantly in 25 years, “the poor you will always have with you” might sound more like a curse of inevitability than a challenge to become engaged in a politics of hopeful citizenship.

In the Old Testament context, God’s response to poverty in Israel was a vision where people were called beyond charity, to periodic redistribution of the means of production — land, grain and livestock. 

So what are Christians called to do today, during a federal election and at a time when Ontario is preparing a poverty reduction strategy?

Simply stated, Christians need to propose policies that ensure everyone has access to a sustainable livelihood and a livable income. Justice requires that every citizen, as an image of God, has the opportunity to live in dignity and to be fully able to participate in community life.

We need a  political vision of how things could be different, and to commit to accountability for our progress towards that vision.

Vision is at the heart of a poverty reduction strategy. In a report last year, the National Council of Welfare outlined the four pillars that are present in effective anti-poverty strategies. They include a vision with specific targets and timelines, a cross-government action plan and budget, mechanisms of accountability and agreed-upon poverty indicators in order to monitor progress.

A poverty reduction strategy could give us new ways to rethink our approach to poverty — not merely a tax-cut approach or a simple spending program. Instead, we need an integrated plan that involves multiple initiatives in a targeted and coherent way. One description sees such a strategy as a combination lock, needing many pieces to fit, rather than a padlock where only one key operates the device. By developing strategies in consultation with citizens, decision makers can identify needs that address poverty but are not only focused on income. A multiplicity of actors can respond with an assortment of measures that will have very positive impacts on our quality of life. 

Examples from other countries show that similar strategic frameworks can set and meet various goals. In the United Kingdom, then Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged in 1999 to substantially reduce child poverty. By 2004, child poverty rates had been cut by 23 per cent. In Ireland, levels of persistent poverty dropped from 15.1 per cent to 5.2 per cent between 1994 and 2001. 

In Canada, two provinces have already taken the initiative to adopt a poverty reduction strategy: Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Ontario and Nova Scotia have begun similar processes.

These provincial plans are important first steps. But within Canada’s federal system, leadership from the federal government is important for developing a comprehensive and co-ordinated strategy to solve poverty. With national leadership, provincial and territorial governments, municipalities and communities, businesses and other organizations, faith communities and citizens can all take up their responsibilities in combatting poverty. 

Citizens for Public Justice is calling for concerned citizens and faith communities to get engaged in the fight against poverty by Envisioning Canada Without Poverty. You can get involved by requesting that all candidates express their commitment to a federal poverty reduction strategy. I invite you to visit CPJ’s web site  www.cpj.ca and read our election bulletin in order to get other thoughtful ideas.

You can learn more about poverty and poverty reduction strategies at www.canadawithoutpoverty.ca. There are resources there to help you explore poverty reduction from a faith perspective in your church or school, including reflections and suggestions for preparing a worship service. 

By making poverty reduction a collective priority, together we can make God’s vision — where there should be no poor among us — a reality.

(Joe Gunn lives in Ottawa and is CPJ’s executive director.)

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