Poverty is a systemic issue within our society that we never really want to discuss openly. It is that dirty secret, that embarrassing subject, which we do not like to talk about in polite company. To be poor is seen as being morally reprehensible, something that we blame and admonish people for, as if it were a choice. And yet, just by the very empirical stratification of our society, there will always be that group of Canadians, of Albertans, who fall into the bottom quintile of our economy.
If one earns below $23,000 per annum, they are considered to be poor. Working a full-time job at the current minimum wage, for 40 hours per week for 50 weeks, one would just be above this threshold. Yet, the living wage for Edmonton is approximately $17.36 per hour, based upon dual incomes for a family of four. But is this realistic, especially in 2018?
The majority of persons working for minimum wage are not teenagers, but adults. Some are single parents, for whatever circumstances life has thrust upon them; they are working to provide for their families. Like us, they want a better life for themselves and the dream of a better world for their children, but the deck is already stacked against them, as society is well aware of the ‘poverty trap’ – the perpetuation of poverty from generation to generation.
This is why the backlash one sees with the raising of the minimum wage becomes astonishing. One can understand that the policy instigated in Ontario may have been too drastic a measure in a short period of time; one can acknowledge that such policies will not eradicate poverty within Canada, as there will always be that bottom quintile within our society. But this reaction to these policies hints at some other necessity within our system.
Do we need the poor to feel better about ourselves, to give us a benchmark on our own success? Do we need to exploit others to distract us from our own feelings of being exploited?
Or is it that we do not want to look into the face of poverty, as we may see our own reflection mirrored in those eyes? Maybe, we do not want to have that discussion about poverty, because we are ever subtly conscience of how precarious our own economic fortunes are.
One’s position, one’s status in life is mostly founded upon luck. Very few people have earned their way to the top quintile in society. Most were born into that class. Which is important to understand, to acknowledge, as it dispels the myth of a “Canadian dream” where hard work will always get you to the top. It takes generations to become successful, and it can all be taken away from us in a tragic instance. Maybe we should always be mindful of this, grateful and humble for good fortune, and offer a hand to others where we can, as we are all in this life together.
John Kennair is an international consultant and doctor of laws who lives in St. Albert.