The year was 1938. The Great Depression of the 1930s was still underway. Jobs were hard to find and poverty rampant. A job that paid less than $5 a week was about the best a 17-year-old high school graduate could get. So Mom got a job in a paper bag factory. Dad, who was 16, was already working there to help his even more impoverished family survive. He had one shirt to his name, sewn together out of sugar sacks by his mother. It got caught in his machine and torn so badly one day he had to go run home so his mother could quickly sew it back together. Then he hurried back to work to avoid having his pay docked as little as possible.
I don’t know if $5 a week was considered a “living wage” in 1938, but I very much doubt it, especially if that’s all a family of four, two adults and two teenage children had to live on. Mom has also told me something Dad told her about the day some wealthy, do-gooder matrons showed up with a food basket at the desperately poor McNichol home. I don’t know for sure what kind of attitude they displayed; but my paternal grandmother sat on the steps and cried her eyes out afterwards because it hurt so much to have to take such charity.
Over the years the poor have been stigmatized, looked down upon, even punished for being poor. Bad enough adults are treated that way, but worse when children are branded. The emotional scars go deep. It does them, and society, nothing but harm in all sorts of ways.
The Great Depression should have taught us something, and now the current economic conditions, in Alberta, for example, where the oil patch and thousands of people who used to work in it have fallen on hard times: poverty can happen to anyone.
Attitudes have changed slowly. But I daresay there are still people who think in so many words it’s the price you pay for your mistakes, that it builds character, that it’s the way the wheat is separated from the chaff, the strong from the weak, thus improving the overall quality of society.
Well, I’m here to tell you poverty is a terrible thing. Whatever good it leaves in people speaks more to their innate goodness and value as human beings than any evolutionary process it supposedly triggers. There is nothing good about poverty. It creates far more personal and societal problems than any imaginary benefits the ideological myth-makers might like to make up to justify their bad actions and bad ideas. The sooner we can give our heads a shake and understand and accept that poverty is not a good or acceptable thing, that in fact it is a bad, and very dangerous thing, the better off we will all be.
I shudder to think what kind of world we may be leaving our children and their children to live in if we don’t take action to help close the growing “inequality” gap between rich and poor. That includes the increasing number of people doing “precarious” work that doesn’t pay a “living wage,” that leaves people living on the edge, struggling to survive.
So I tip my toque to Peace and Justice Grey Bruce for tackling the issue head-on and setting up a special group to take a long, hard look at that problem. The Final Report of the Precarious Work Group is a well-researched, well-written document that should give everyone who reads it food for thought, especially political decision makers in all levels of government.
The report points out there is much municipalities can do, for example, by adopting “living wage” policies for municipal workers, and work done by private contractors for the municipality.
“You would think a country like Canada, with all its natural and capital wealth would be able to provide a living wage for every working person,” the report says. But this country has the third highest poverty rate among working-age people compared with other developed countries with similar economies. Ontario especially is “bleeding” manufacturing jobs — 300,000 full-time jobs since the recession. Meanwhile “too many new jobs are in low-paying, precarious work. And many of these workers are older — 55 and up — in the fast food industry. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is rising.
Under the heading, “Why we should be worried,” the report says, “Whatever its roots, precarious work costs us all more than we think, economically and in social and political alienation.
I could not agree more.
A version of this was originally published in The Sun Times in February, 2015