Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Poverty Awareness Day

This is Poverty Awareness Day

I have known poverty first hand as a teenage bride and as a single mom, but I think I survived intact mainly because because I didn't come from a poverty stricken background. I never asked my father for help but I always knew that he would not let me or my children starve if things got too tough. My experiences with poverty occurred in the bad old days, the ones before medicare and other safety nets were in place.

I have seen poverty at close hand here in Canada. Two of my children were forced to go on welfare when they were single parents. But they, like me, were not undone by the experience.
In their case there were programmes in place to ensure that they lived decently if not well. And both were intelligent and knowledgeable so were able to navigate the system and get out of poverty.

In my case there were no safety nets but people were kind.

The doctor who delivered my first two children provided all my pre-natal care, performed the deliveries and included the children's well baby visits for the first year for $35 and $50 per child. I had to ask him how much I owed, and, when I asked why he hadn't billed me, he showed me his bank book and said, "Do I need to charge you money?"

The Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who cared for my children and performed their tonsillectomies gave special rates to Quebec teachers and nurses because he knew we were badly paid.

Both of those men made house calls because I had no car.

My first boss paid my $10 phone bill each month because I would need to phone if I were ever sick and my pay could not stretch that far. (I started teaching at $1800 per year and my rent was $77.50 per month.)

My neighbours gave my second child a three quart jug of milk for her birthday because she hated the powdered milk I could afford.

Through that whole period I don't think I ever felt desperate or hopeless. I was young. I was taking courses at night and in the summers. My salary would improve. If I were ever in a real jam my father would help.

The poverty I have seen in the developing world is much worse than any I saw in Canada. But even there, except for the orphaned children living under the streets of Ulaan Baatar, it was seldom completely hopeless. The Africans I knew were almost all poor, but so were their neighbours. Even the neighbours who were a little better off didn't live in radically different housing or eat different food. Everyone ate the local corn porridge with wild crafted greens stewed on the side and occasional pieces of chicken. The greens in Kenya are called sukuma wiki ... stretch the week ... and nearly everyone needed to stretch the week sometimes.

What distinguished the truly poor was their inability to provide any education for their children, and, in most places in the developing world, education is a commodity that is highly valued by everyone for without it there is no way to climb out of the abyss. And that is why I would see people with very moderate incomes ... steady jobs ... paying school fees for many children that were not their own. I once asked a woman who was comparatively well off how she managed to pay fees for sixteen youngsters. She said she had to; otherwise her children would find themselves having to help four times as many needy relatives.

I think that poverty hurts most when you are continually made to feel poor, when the systems don't work well; when everyone else around you has too much and doesn't share; when you feel smaller and less competent than everyone else.

I think that poverty devastates when you feel there is no escape route. Children without caring parents; old people; the mentally ill... those who come from a long line of poor and uneducated people ... and in a place like Africa when drought or war threatens even the most basic food supply.

I vote NDP because the party believes in helping people rise from poverty. I vote for them because their predecessors, the CCF, started a medicare system in Saskatchewan. These are the people who give people a hand up without tramplng on their dignity.

There is a saying in Africa that I heard from a Rwandan man in Kenya a couple of years ago that captures why it is important to help people help themselves rather than blaming them for their situation or pushing them out of sight.

"If you help one African he will pull 100 others out of the pit with him. If you push him in, he will drag 100 others with him."

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