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With all the talk of poverty over the past week, relating to aid and stumbling climate talks, it feels like a good time to explore the issue of poverty in a little more depth. This is a subject which gets brought up constantly, but only in the most superficial ways. Like a question everyone’s afraid to ask, but to which everyone knows the answer, this unimaginable destitution represents the ‘other side’ of modern life. Even in the 21st century, deprivation beyond the wildest Dickensian dreams is still at least as common as a comfortable First World existence.

It’s easy to assume that poverty is a fact of life, that it’s always been with us and always will be. Just as some people have more, others have less. This view distorts reality in a couple of important ways. First, it ignores the proportions – there are many poor people for each rich person. And second, it avoids asking why some societies have far more poverty than others. Many (egalitarian) societies have no “poor” or “rich” people, and even the most “developed” nations show a huge range in how wealth is distributed (ie: America vs Sweden).

Historically, one has to ask, where poor people came from? Populations don’t spring out of nowhere – they needed lands to hunt, herd or farm before the days of aid and trade, or they wouldn’t have descendents today. Why do so many today, then, have far less than their neolithic ancestors? And who’s been feeding them since they lost it?

Poverty is not normal. It’s not a “natural” state of affairs and it rarely happens outside without the help of larger wealthier societies. Poor populations don’t just appear, they’re created. Since the first empires conquered the first foreign lands, refugees have been flowing back to their cities and been put to work as the cheapest of labourers. Some were slaves, some peasants, or really broke slum-dwellers. Those in power learned the art of giving them just enough to survive, and they did – for millennia. Not much has changed since then, even through the last few centuries we saw an enormous influx of slaves, migrants and indentures servants from colonial holdings, a trend which still continues in modern times. Take a walk around any ghetto today, then ask yourself

Poverty is not just the absence of wealth, in the way that darkness and cold are nothing but a lack of light and heat. Poverty is what’s left over when the wealth leaves, and the legacy of those who took it.

Tonight’s documentaries take us through the history of poverty. The first, Poor Us discusses the ancient origins, like the paragraphs above, and how poverty in the modern world relates. It’s shorter and unlike the second film, has more cartoons than subtitles.

Poor Us – An Animated History of Poverty

Our second feature, The End of Poverty?, directed by Phillipe Diaz, focuses on modern international issues in a lot more depth, such as trade, aid and debt as well colonization and conquest. The winner of many awards, it’s an incredibly informative journey though the brutal world of modern poverty.

The End of Poverty

P.S.Though it’s not still not (legally) available for free online, I’ve really been enjoying the new BBC series, Why Poverty? If you have a “television” or reasonable facsimile, I would definitely recommend tracking it down.

This map, created by Matt Grande, shows which of Hamilton’s secondary schools are closing (red) and staying open (green). It’s making the rounds with the latest article by Matt Jelly regarding the Board’s most recent list of school closures and plans to move their headquarters to the south mountain. Sir John A. MacDonald, Delta, Parkview, Barton, Hill Park, Mountain, Parkside and Highland are set to close, among a list of around thirty in total. The recent completion of the South ARC review process, choosing to close Barton, Hill Park and Mountain instead of say Ancaster or Westmount, only continued the ugly trends
seen north of the Escarpment. Not surprisingly,

Here are a few other maps, from the Spectator’s Code Red series and the Hamilton Community Foundation’s “Vital Signs” report. Do you see any similarities?

Income Disparity statistics and Maps – Hamilton Vital Signs
Code Red Maps – Hamilton Spectator

Many protesters attended board meetings the other night, from regular fixtures of local anti-poverty protests to students from the schools affected. This wasn’t the first protest the old board headquarters has seen recently, and I doubt it will be the last. Everyone I’ve talked to over this issue, from every walk of life, has been utterly dismayed by these decisions, and it will take more than promises of a few new modern super-schools to quell the ire which is now rising. If City and Board officials thought these schools and neighbourhoods would be politically “easy” targets, then they may well be in for something of a surprise.

A lot of talk has gone into the task of making Hamilton the “best place to raise a child”. It isn’t. The very phrase is both laughable and offensive, especially to anyone trying to raise kids within the boundaries of Queen, Parkdale, Mohawk and the bay. These areas are already suffering with the legacy of decades of neglect, which in many neighbourhoods (like mine), has led to horrific levels of poverty. Hamilton’s inner-city is the ‘elephant’ in our ‘room’. Try as we might to ignore it, our city will never overcome our “image problem” while these ghetto scenes remain. This problem was created by an exodus of housing, jobs, services, and investment – a pattern recent Board decisions fit perfectly. The more things change, I suppose, the more they stay the same.

If we really want to make this city “the best place to raise a child”, we can set an example by valuing children from Barton St. E. every bit as we do those from Westdale and Ancaster.

For Hamilton’s upcoming municipal election, the Chamber of Commerce has decided to push what it calls the “jobs and prosperity” agenda. In a Spectator Opinion column, Richard Koroscil of the Chamber explains their plans: they’re quizzing all candidates on their stances on business related issues, and have defined a business agenda to bring “jobs and prosperity” to our city.

While I’m certainly not against people quizzing candidates or voicing opinions, this worries me a lot. Business leaders, especially the Chamber, already hold far too much sway in our city’s decision-making. And while the Spectator (like usual) is all to happy to grant them a platform to spout their views, they’re a lot less likely to provide a forum for some honest criticism of those views.

I’m not saying that all the stances the chamber is taking are wrong, I’d love light rail or all-day GO train service. Aerotropolis, though, is a policy disaster waiting to happen.

If there’s one sentence that really scares me though, it’s “doing a better job of private-sector investment and land development, and taxation issues.” How exactly could Hamilton bend over any further backwards for these people? We have some of the lowest development fees in the region (and having recently lost $9 million by freezing the rates), and an amazing record of granting land and money to developers to do with as they please.

If there’s one thing that’s crippling this city, it’s how much our politicians pander to businesses – especially Developers. The stadium would be an excellent example of this. As would the Lister Block, old Federal Building, Jackson Square, or the vast, sprawling expanses of suburban housing and big-box retailers on the south mountain. The epidemic of vacant buildings is a direct result of the way City Council looks the other way. As nearly all of our environmental issues – from factories belching smog and soot to toxic brownfields – can be related back to a lack of enforcement of basic environmental laws against the companies responsible.

If this city isn’t a pleasant place to live or raise a family, this is why. But it’s also why it isn’t a good (enough) place to do business. If taxes are too high, it’s because we keep giving away 9-figure sums of public money for highways, stadiums and Aerotropolises. If we have a poverty problem, it’s because nearly every major manufacturer in town has cut jobs if not moved out completely. And if our neighbourhoods are plagued by abandoned buildings, it’s because a small group of developers have bought them up and refuse to sell or use them.

Quality business growth can’t happen on top of toxic slums. Unless this city deals with the pressing social and environmental crises it faces, we’ll forever be just “dirty Hamilton”.

Chris Wilson at Slate Magazine has put together a beautiful animated map which depicts the economic crisis. Where jobs are gained, he puts a blue dot, and a red one where they’re lost. The bigger the dot, the bigger the loss. The animation runs month-by month, and by the end of the three years (the present), it looks like America has been bombed from space.

How many of these job losses hit people with dependants? How many cut off benefits to a family? And how many of these people will ever be able to get jobs like these again. This isn’t just about boom-and-bust economic cycles, the fabric of our Continent’s economy is changing before our eyes. Manufacturing is disappearing, big industries are consolidating and major resources like oil and fish are vanishing.

What this most recent global meltdown shows is a “perfect storm” where all the factors lined up. It wasn’t just mischievous bankers. It was a world system which has been stretched to the breaking point. And it isn’t over. We may have put seven trillion dollars worth of duct tape on it. Not only did this piss away any savings we might have had, but it only made the basic problem – trillions in bad loans – worse. And it isn’t just money – in real economic situations – production, fishing or farming, one can often pull a lot of money out in the short term by making awful decisions in the long run (like not spending money repairing them), and live-or-die recession situations bring that out. Notice how quickly renewables spending started to dry up when auto companies needed bailing out?

Ten years from now there will be far less oil left. There will be less farmland, less trees, less fish, less ores and coal veins, much less fresh water and far more people. National debts, bolstered by the bailout, will be far more taxing on every dollar we spend. Whether the next “bubble” will “burst” because of high fuel costs, risky investing or the high cost of responding to natural and industrial disasters, it cannot be far off. If there’s one thing that went through my head while visiting New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, it’s that there’s no way even America’s economy could take that kind of damage more than a handful of times. It isn’t just the cost of responding, or even the repair bill. It’s the fact that the economic systems which support such things have been levelled. To quote one guy on the Greyhound Bus going through Biloxi, “I haven’t seen anything like this since Vietnam”.

Like Katrina, and like the last recession, the worst of this will fall on ordinary people.

I’ve seen lots of charts like these before, and they’ve all been getting a lot worse since I started looking at them in the late 1990s. What I didn’t expect is for the business press to start getting worried about it.

Business Insider – 15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth And Inequality In America

Oh, and the picture in Canada isn’t any better. Statscan.

This is scary for two reasons. First, it means far less money for most of the population – particularly the parts who tend to spend it, rather than hoard or invest it. Giving money to people who live paycheque-to-paycheque means it gets re-spent immediately. And making them poorer only drives everyone they spend money with into ruin as well. but the scarier reason is that the more money hoarded by a tiny elite who loans it back to the rest of us, the worse this will get.

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