Privilege and empathy: The welfare food challenge confronts us with taboos and truisms

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"'s about asking for rates that reflect the rising cost of living in Vancouver and provide the basic needs that humans require to flourish and recover, not just survive."

$610 per month to live in the most expensive city in Canada and one of the most expensive in North America is nowhere near comfort; and that's exactly the problem. We are subjecting welfare recipients to an unreasonable, one hand tied behind their back situation where it becomes increasingly difficult to get off welfare because basic nutritional requirements are not being met. For those that are relatively healthy, hours that could be spent accessing training or education, searching for work (that one is physically able and or qualified to do) or actually making that extra $200 per month working are spent in food lines to get that next meal or clinics dealing with a host of medical issues that are overwhelmingly brought on by poverty itself. Try going to Labor Ready to lift Rebar and plywood all day on an empty stomach or with a skin infection or lung infection from mold in your SRO - and that's just for those who can work, for those who are not dealing with mental or physical health barriers, emotional scars and trauma etc. The awareness Raise the Rates is spreading is not about asking for comfort as much as it's about asking for rates that reflect the rising cost of living in Vancouver and provide the basic needs that humans require to flourish and recover, not just survive.

On the pragmatic side the medical costs of poverty alone are staggering. Just as it costs more to keep someone homeless than it does to build them a home the costs of keeping people in poverty are compounded throughout the provincial purse in other areas. This makes the need to create a poverty reduction plan in our province, the only one without one, all the more salient. So for my fiscally conservative friends, do we deal with the symptoms of poverty in our hospitals and clinics or do we create a targeted strategy to eliminate poverty in Canada and reduce the burden on our health care system? Do we pay up front, or pay with interest later? The Swiss with their guaranteed income might not look so crazy after all when considering the compounded costs of poverty.

Some could argue (some of my friends in fact) that "no one is making someone poor or keeping them in poverty, they made bad choices etc." and sure we all make some good and bad choices in life, but the social determinants of health and other factors that create poverty traps are powerful forces well beyond the agency of the individual and their decision making prowess. Just as the privileged position that I benefit from is shaped by powerful institutions and forces that set all kinds of things in motion before I was presented with various choices or opportunities that shaped my current situation. Life is not as simple as individuals simply making good or bad choices. As Margaret Thatcher once famously said "There is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families" but when an individual is living on the street with no family we have an obligation to be his or her family. We become our brother's keeper. I would argue that this is society, and our identities as members of society (i.e. citizens) has become increasingly blurred by a creeping identity of ourselves as consumers - Stephen Harper's recent Throne Speech crystallizes this identity crisis by placing focus on the national needs of us as consumers with our TV channel choices and cell phone plans. To me this is insulting and belittling, as much as I would appreciate being able to choose my own TV channels and access more affordable cell plans.

A healthy society is built through empathy. An unhealthy society is broken down through a lack of it. It could be argued that the current political debacle in the United States, the extreme polarization and dysfunction of Washington could be attributed to a lack of empathy. Perhaps as much so for Canada too. We've stopped relating to one another as members of a community, members of a society, and instead have retreated into ideologically driven partisan trenches.

In the end it's difficult for many of us to place ourselves in a context we know nothing about and relate to others who perplex or even frustrate us. My feeling already is that the more privileged we are the harder we may have to work to cultivate empathy. This idea is supported by recent research in the U.S. and Canada that shows an empathy gap between rich and poor. So as inequality continues to increase perhaps we should be concerned about empathy decreasing in tandem and what that means for the health of our civic, provincial and national institutions.

Whether you consider the moral arguments for compassion and empathy in an affluent society, the social contract to care for all in our communities or whether you are a fiscal conservative who dislikes wasteful use of taxpayers dollars, we need to consider poverty and privilege in a more nuanced context and realize that we can do better. We need to do better. We are also well served to consider our own position between privilege and poverty in the process and cultivate empathy.

In the end, raising welfare rates enough to provide basic nutritional needs shouldn't be a hard sell no matter how you package it. Really, it shouldn't.

For more on the Welfare Food Challenge and Raise the Rates go here.



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