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

(407) Sign of the times: your holiday blues killer right here

Sign of the Times is the recent project of a New York City artist/activist named Andres Serrano.  Mr. Serrano went around the Big Apple asking to purchase the cardboard signs used by people begging in the street.  The result is this: a rather profound short movie.

The point is that any approach to poverty worth anything requires creativity and respect.

I Bought Signs Homeless People Use to Beg—Here’s What Happened. 200 signs told the story of poverty in America and in the worldAlterNet

image: via YouTube

(385) Two viewpoints

Sir John Major and Russell BrandUK media carried forth two interesting socio-political moments this week in the form of unexpected statements about the general state of things.  First up, comedian Russell Brand, fresh from a gig guest editing The New Statesman magazine.  Second, former British PM Sir John Major.

Major, now 70, hit out at his classmates running the UK who are allowing an increase in the price of natural gas.  Brand, not yet 40, got emotional about the need to quit voting and ditch poisonous political systems that are wrecking the poor and the planet.  Brand’s animation put a veteran journalist onto the back foot with a straightforward call for lefty revolution in consciousness and pretty much everything else from ending tax havens and curtailing corporate power and abuse to serving the poor and addicted, two states Brand knows well from experience.  Sir John pointed out that the price increase for natural gas is above a reasonable reflection of gas company costs and capital needs.

Brand’s statement was custom made for the age of the Internet and social media where it is still racking up the metrics.  Major’s statement is more grown up stuff: very specific,  about cause and effect, delivered from the point of view of an elder statesman, successor to no less than Margaret Thatcher.  Major told his Tory old boys that if the gas price increase goes forward many people in Britain will have to choose between heating and food this winter.  Both men contrasting individuals yet authors of political statements with a great deal of portent.  Interesting and delightful.  If there was such a thing as a suburban-poverty.com lapel pin both would receive one at no cost via the freshly privatized British post office.

Russell Brand on the revolution: we no longer have the luxury of tradition
Dangerous Minds with link to Paxman interview on YouTube 10:46 and to New Statesman

Sir John Major calls for windfall tax on energy profits
BBC News with video of Sir John and a rebuttal of the windfall tax from shadow energy minister

image: via Wikimedia Commons


(372) Studies indicate poverty impairs cognitive ability

worryThe poor are stupid.  You’ve probably heard somebody say this at least once.  Maybe you’ve used the phrase yourself.

Perhaps at times the speaker is expressing frustration with what seems like an ability on the part of those in social difficulty to compound their own problems, be their own enemy.  At other times, of course, this statement is merely nasty, reductive, inarticulate, and hateful.  But what if there was a neuroscience of poverty?  What would we have to say if there appeared to be evidence the stress of poverty impaired your cognition and made you less able to handle complex situations?  Research along these lines ought to make us stop in our tracks whether we describe ourselves as left leaning, right wing, centrist or politically indifferent.

The journal Science has just presented two studies indicating the stress of poverty reduces human cognitive function.  This reduction in function may help to explain decisions and behaviours on the part of the poor that seem to perpetuate or intensify their own difficulties.  Shoppers in New Jersey and rice farmers in India were the subjects of study.  Individuals demonstrated difficulty with spatial and reasoning tasks when known to be burdened by processing their problematic financial status.  The impairment was seen to equal the loss of an entire night’s sleep or being a chronic alcoholic, some 13 IQ points.  The studies are available at www.sciencemag.org and were picked up by the mass media in several countries.

Is your money on your mind?

Poverty saps mental capacity to deal with complex tasks, say scientists: study suggests being preoccupied with money problems is equivalent to loss of 13 IQ points or losing a night’s sleep guardian.com