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The Face of Poverty within our Land

In the early eighties I was among thousands throughout the western world who saw the face of extreme poverty and famine through the media’s coverage of children in Ethiopia and other North African nations. The images haunted me, and still remind me of the hardness and helplessness of extremes in the third and developing world. Ever since then, I have been reminded of humanity’s attempts to address poverty locally and internationally.  I read with interest, the headlines and documents surrounding Ed Broadbent’s motion to the House of Commons in 1989 which promised to address and eradicate child poverty in Canada by 2000. That date came and went, and it seemed many were more concerned with Y2K at the time. Further to this, in September 2000 through the Millennium Development Declaration of the United Nations, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty was established, one of eight Millennium Development Goals to be reached by 2015.  This past week the world was reminded that there are less than 1000 days until we reach 2015, and still there is much work left to do. It seems as the targets are ever elusive and unobtainable.

Here on this island of God’s creation these realities of human history and human hope have not gone unnoticed. Though we do not experience the reality of extreme poverty and famine, we are not untouched by the great disparity between those who are extremely wealthy and the rest of us. Though we might not be able to address the concerns of the earth and all its inhabitants, we too are called to work steadily and faithfully toward justice and equity in this place.

This island has been touched by great poverty and great wealth over these last twenty years. From the effects of the Cod Moratorium to the harvesting of oil revenues off the Grand Banks, many in this province have experienced the ups and downs of a boom-bust economy.  There has been the continual decimation of rural-outport life, with the migration of many families in the outports to the North East Avalon, or to the great opportunities in Alberta, especially in Fort McMurray.  A growing number of poor or working poor have had to rely on Food Banks, and the use of various social services. In many urban and suburban communities, youth and vulnerable persons are couch surfing just to manage in the cold months; living on the streets of St. John’s is near impossible year round.

Though many would want to focus on images of the poor and conversations with those on the poverty line to try to gain empathy, support, and funding for development and advocacy of poverty reducing initiatives, there has to be another way. There is little benefit to address the roots of poverty through displaying this as the face. Why identify individuals’ circumstance in order to gain support? Instead, through conversations and dialogue, changes in the perspective of policy, taxation, and ethics seem to be the better way to highlight the face of poverty.

Fluctuations of wealth and poverty have led to a general conversation and challenge that faith communities, social agencies and the government have been having around poverty reduction. The Provincial Government has a Poverty Reduction Strategy, and has been taking steps to address the concerns of poverty with interested partners. This slow evolution has led to the establishment of various programs across the province to varying success.

In all of this, there has been another dialogue growing.  In multifaith conversations, there has been discussion, debate and dialogue concerning the gap between the very rich and the rest of us. The oil revenue that this province receives does not reach the majority of the population. The conversation about poverty reduction has given way to a greater dialogue about poverty elimination.

Poverty reduction is concerned with lessening the numbers of persons on or below the poverty line. Instead of 100 below the poverty line, perhaps 80; yet those 80 are still just as poor as they were before, while the wealth of the others has increased.  This is not what we want to promote or uphold. Poverty elimination is about the elimination of the gap between rich and poor, such that the potential of all may be realized and upheld. All are valued, and thus contribute to the health and wealth of the whole community.

I belong to the Religious Social Action Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, and as a director, I work with individuals of other faiths in addressing the challenges of poverty in a wealthy land. Our vision statement offers:

RSAC is a voice of consciousness and moral persuasion in the NL society at large which aspires to be a catalyst for social change to achieve productive and dignified life for all members of the society where nobody is denied a decent standard of living, education, economic and social equity and quality of life. More specifically, RSAC is committed to working towards poverty elimination in our society.

In this work, we have begun to partner with others to address the ways in which we can be a catalyst for transformation. We have proposed a Fairness Prism for use by the provincial government, and we are actively researching a proposal for establishing a Living Wage in communities in this province.   We have been heartened by the work of Professor Robert Sweeny of Memorial University, as he has brought to light issues of inequality within provincial policies and taxation methods, not only offering them in scholastic discussion, but also sharing the information in the public forum, through Time Talks at the Rocket Room in St. John’s.

There is much work that is to be done to eliminate the gap between the rich and the rest of us. While it is easy for us to focus on images of families and individuals in need, in so doing we segregate and stigmatize them.  It is better to have a faceless community of the poor, and instead let the light fall upon the policies, ethics, and function of the system that have placed these persons in this predicament in the first place.

David Burrows

About David Burrows

David Burrows is a priest of the church, currently serving in parish ministry within the Diocese of Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, a place he has called home for the past fifteen years. He consistently engages dialogue and action with the wider community through creative outreach projects. Cycling, kayaking, writing, and driving fast cars are distractions in his life.
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