The complexity of poverty in Canada

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Jim Silver, University of Winnipeg

This blog post marks the occasion of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17. For more information about this day, go here.

Over the past 40 years poverty in Canada has become increasingly complex, racialized and often intergenerational. It is about much more than a shortage of income. It is also about poor housing, poor health, low educational outcomes, social exclusion, racism and colonialism, all of which interact with and reinforce each other, aggravating the problem. This complex poverty is often internalized, with those who experience it blaming themselves for their problems, resulting in low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence and in many cases a lack of hope for a better future. The self-blame and lack of hope—reinforced by the common “blame the victim” understanding of poverty—have the effect of trapping people in a web or cycle of poverty. This kind of complex poverty is particularly damaging.

There are no quick, easy or one-dimensional solutions. But there are solutions. To significantly reduce the incidence of complex poverty requires a multi-faceted response that would include, among other things: job creation strategies with specifically designed programs for moving those experiencing complex poverty into good jobs; specially tailored educational strategies to promote improved educational attainment for those trapped in complex poverty; early childhood education, especially in low-income areas; a national housing policy aimed at supporting the production of low-income rental housing; and legislation that would make it much easier for the working poor to form or join a union.

There are also many community-level anti-poverty initiatives that are working well. But they are too few and too small to have a dramatic effect on those living with complex poverty. Nevertheless, they demonstrate that change is possible, and that large numbers of those who are poor are prepared to take risks to build a better future for themselves and their families, if the properly tailored and supported opportunities are created.

What is needed is substantial public investment in those anti-poverty initiatives that have been proven to work well, with these much higher levels of public investment maintained consistently year after year over a generation or more. Nothing like that is happening today. We know what to do, but the political will to do it is lacking.

It is important that we appreciate the complex character of so much of today’s poverty, and that we appreciate that while there are no quick and easy solutions, there are indeed solutions. It is perfectly possible to significantly reduce the incidence of complex poverty in Canada. We would all be better off if that were to be done.

Jim Silver is a professor and chair of the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at the University of Winnipeg. His research interests are in inner-city, poverty-related, and community development issues. He is the author of About Canada: Poverty, published in 2014 by Fernwood Publishing. 


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