Tag Archives: social aspects

(526) The new idleness

Golfer“Condemned to relax.”

The Economist considers a new marker for poverty: spare time.  Seems like employment is not what it used to be.  We thought idleness was always associated with poverty but it looks like things have gotten complicated when it comes to the value of leisure and the value of work and the allocation of the two.  Those doing well really pound out the hours and others simply find themselves left out.

Nice work if you can get out. Why the rich now have less leisure than the poor

image: via Wikimedia Commons

(495) You can’t win if you don’t play

Girl at the LotteryWho hasn’t dipped into the psychology and sociology of lotteries at some moment?  That warm pool of escapism, greed and joyful projection is irresistible to the individual psyche and is surely one of the major props of late capitalist western civilization.  Perhaps only the pornography biz rivals the trade in fantasy done by our lotteries.  And nowhere is that little rectangular printout with some magic numbers on it fetishized more than where we find the stressed out classes.  The working poor, the precarious people with no money for big purchases always seem able to come up with some change for a play or two on the way home from doing their errands.  Sure, we all like to dream about nice things and sunny situations but isn’t there something insidious about lotteries?  You can hardly blame anyone who buys a ticket and lotteries have been around forever.  Yet it would seem that not enough questions are asked about this ubiquitous component of life.  What then to make of anxiety on the part of Canada’s lotto industry at the prospect of young people not spending enough on tickets?

Provincial agencies band together, want more young people buying lotto tickets

image: Girl at the Lottery (1829) by Peter Fendi via Wikimedia Commons

(463) The American Way of Poverty [Book review]

American Way of PovertyThe American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives
Sasha Abramsky, Nation Books, 2013
368 pages

If poverty in the USA is a machine then we now have the requisite manual for understanding how that machine works. And what a devilish device American poverty is in 2013: one in six Americans is below established poverty lines.

The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives witnesses the catastrophe in its first part. To read it is to follow a visceral route through the deindustrialized zones, crapped out suburbs, food pantries, homeless shelters, trailer parks and other depressing sights of poor America. Wages are shit, benefits few. Government programs are weak. Morale and health is stalling out for millions.

Sasha Abramsky’s newest book on hard times America grew from an ongoing project called Voices of Poverty. That was a gathering up of mini biographies of social difficulty intended as a counterweight to conservative narratives of poor people as responsible for their own misery and unworthy of meaningful public help. Starting with lived experience like this makes great sense when trying to understand the complexity and stubbornness of deprivation. Part two is about policy responses to this reality. Reportage attached to intellectual analysis makes The American Way of Poverty powerful and should help it be attractive to many types of readers.

Suburban poverty is not named as a specific ill. It needn’t be since it is simply a part of the furniture of the book. Underwater mortgages and pitifully low wages abound here.

What to do? Abramsky says Americans need a better social compact. While acknowledging the difficulty of the political moment in America he calls for a“fairness agenda.” His smart, hopeful ticket of repair tools includes:

  • better measurements for describing poverty
  • pension reform
  • a major funding mechanism for higher education
  • public works and regional development especially for high-unemployment areas
  • excess profit taxes particularly on energy and financial industries
  • estate and consumption tax increases
  • higher income taxes on the wealthiest Americans
  • more progressive tax policies for middle/low income earners
  • reform and innovation in government service delivery – including 211 systems & cross platform benefit applications
  • reductions in defence spending
  • a changed approach to drug addiction & mental health care
  • criminal justice system reform – especially sentencing reform
  • reduced rates of incarceration
  • Medicaid, SNAP, TANF reform – especially to access requirements

A mighty agenda this is, one requiring grass roots action and concerted federal effort. Many of the programs suggested will have high start up costs and require support from tax revenue. It’s fascinating to read what Abramsky has pulled together.  Common sense shines out of his book all the time easing the dark aspects of the subject.

Sadly, many good ideas have to be accompanied by passages describing how they can be spun, for lack of a better word, to make them more appealling in a polarized environment that includes deeply internalized neoconservative and neoliberal values. Poverty in twenty-first century America cannot just be approached with a view to its elimination by the best possible technical means. The possibility of a technocratic approach modelled on the 1960s War on Poverty or the space program is not possible in America right now. Abramsky has to belabour himself early on in three ways because of the condition the national psychology is in. First, just to establish that America’s poverty is real, large in scale and worthy of everybody’s attention. Secondly, that it is a scandal not a tragedy. And thirdly, that there are multiple incentives for carefully applying well thought out correctives to poverty that will benefit all of American society.

Readers might have expected more comparisons to Canada along the way. Cultural expectations in both countries are still comparable for many people. Touchy Americans usually respond with contempt or disinterest to comparisons between the United States and say Sweden or Iceland, no matter the content of the comparison.  Canada may have been a more useful object of comparison for the author.  Canadians can also still be thankful that their poverty is modified by publically funded health care – something Americans have yet to fully get around to and which Abramsky advocates.

North of the border this book makes for alarming reading. Is this Canada’s future?  Maybe our ailing neighbour will surprise us and the world. The country that was spending $5,000 a second at the height of the Iraq war might yet lift up its poor and discover it likes doing so along the way. What an example to the world that would be. In the meantime America’s poor can be thankful someone is out there recording their words and drawing together the best ideas on the topic of what is to be done.

Read this book.

Poor in the land of plenty: Sasha Abramsky’s ‘American Way of Poverty’
NYT review

The author is featured in this Democracy Now! segment:

(460) Rethinking the line

DetailThe ever-interesting Canadian magazine Spacing  published a two-part personal essay this month in which a city planner describes the way First Nations arts and thinking came to inform her practice.  In particular, the fusion of contemporary western art with Ojibwe tradition embodied in the work of painter Norval Morrisseau helped Lacey McRae Williams articulate her intentions for community design as inclusive and respectful of the natural world. 

Looking to Norval Morrisseau’s art to indigenize Canadian city planning
(Part I) (Part II)

(434) Woodgreen poster campaign

Woodgreen Poster CampaignKudos to east Toronto’s WoodGreen Community Services for creating a series of posters designed to educate people about the realities of poverty and social exclusion.  The posters and a video riff on media coverage of celebrities and feature the agency’s clients.  They are also intended to bolster WoodGreen’s campaign to hang onto provincial funding for a program called Homeward Bound that resists homelessness through education and personal resiliency.

What if we cared about those living in poverty as much as we care about celebrities? woodgreen.org

Celeb Culture Skewered by Canadian Social Services Campaign