As a community mental health social worker in downtown Toronto, I encounter the most extreme conditions of poverty and social inequality in the city. The people I work with are often forced to find shelter in profoundly undignified environments. Some pay upwards of $1,000 a month to share a shoebox-sized room with strangers in boarding homes where sickness is rampant and pest infestations are chronic. When I search for people in dangerously cramped city respite shelters, I’m struck by their resemblance to natural disaster relief centres. There is no privacy; there are rarely any showers; and leaving your “cot” means risking the few possessions you have to theft. I often reflect on how quickly my mental health would deteriorate should I ever wind up staying in one.
The new Ontario budget, released last month, is set to cut many programs and services in a way that will dramatically worsen the lives of our city’s most vulnerable communities. The elimination of legal aid funding for immigrants and refugees will have harmful consequences ranging from detention to death upon deportation. Reducing the Toronto Public Health budget by $1 billion will likely increase rates of otherwise preventable diseases. Slashing funding for overdose prevention sites will lead to countless preventable deaths. And changes to Ontario’s Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services—including a $1-billion cut—as part of the previously announced overhaul of the province’s social assistance system, worsen an already inadequate system. Ford’s changes to Ontario Disability Support will move many low-income people with disabilities into Ontario Works, which offers far less money than ODSP and is designed to push people into the labour market via “incentives.”
Policy programs like these are premised on the moralistic and meritocratic misconception that we all get what we deserve in life. We don’t. And acknowledging this has profound ethical implications for how we understand our obligations to others.
Workfare programs assume that low-income people are dishonest, or worse, moochers; they divide the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” categories. But poor personal choices don’t produce poverty. Poverty is the result of an unequal distribution of resources and power. Some countries produce little or no poverty, while others produce lots of it. It’s not as though Norwegians and Canadians are wildly different kinds of people. They have different socioeconomic systems.
We have little control over some of the most influential aspects of our lives. The class background we are born into powerfully shapes our opportunities and our life chances. A 2018 OECD study suggests that many low-income Canadians will never become middle-income earners no matter how hard they work, and that the poorest 10 percent of Canadians may take up to four generations to ever reach the median income.
In our society, the wealthy are commonly seen as achieving their status by dint of their diligent decisions, while those at the bottom suffer from weakness of will or poor decision making. But the wealthy make mistakes too. The difference is that they are cushioned from the consequences of their bad choices. Poor people aren’t disadvantaged by inborn irrational decision-making. Poverty forces choices between undesirable alternatives. Going back to school means incurring debt; having minimal funds means sacrificing nutritious groceries to make rent; the list goes on.
The more we believe that success is built upon merit and skill, the less we’re inclined to support a redistributive system and robust social safety net. Ontario’s job-training programs, user fees for child care, and youth entrepreneurship initiatives may all marginally increase access to opportunities, but they far from guarantee social and economic security. Our poverty policies ignore that our basic economic model necessitates some degree of unemployment and poverty. In a system like ours, there’s no escaping it: Someone’s going to be poor.
Workfare policies assume that jobs are available, but that workers lack the motivation, education, or training to land them. Evidence points to the contrary: According to Statistics Canada’s 2018 job vacancy rate data, while there has been an increase in job openings, most are low-paying. What’s more, setting upward mobility as a goal merely shuffles the deck. It doesn’t eliminate poverty so much as circulate different people in and out of it.
Viewing life through the lens of luck doesn’t come naturally. It’s easy to see how we understand our achievements as based on our hard work and forget the good fortune that made them possible. We ruminate on the choices we’ve made and the hardships we’ve overcome and draw upon these events to construct our personal narratives. It is true that many successful people really do work hard, but it’s easy to chalk this up to character without considering the conditions that foster our capabilities, or the lucky breaks we got along the way.
Ford’s poverty reduction strategy, like many before it, perpetuates callous moral judgment and structural inequalities. Lives are at stake. Our legal and health services, and financial and social supports, must be both universally and unconditionally accessible—we can all be unlucky sometimes. No policy will guard us from mistakes or bad fortune. But we can make luck a less powerful determinant in life.
Nobody deserves to suffer in poverty. This much seems painfully obvious. Yet our anti-poverty policies fail to reflect this obvious moral truth.