The beer can family and the faces of poverty

By Roderick Benns

From my kitchen window I could see the two girls were about four and six years old.

They had just hopped out of a rusting, black Suzuki Esteem, circa 2001 maybe, making a beeline for our large recycling bin.

The father was grey, unshaven and hunched as he swiftly followed them. The youngest eagerly picked up a pop can and the father slapped it out of her hand back into the bin. I could see him pick up a green Steam Whistle can and it was clear that he was explaining to her that the beer can was the real goal.

The mother, who had been driving, moved more reluctantly to the curbside. She wore poor-fitting jeans and an old, dark t-shirt.

The beer can family and the faces of povertyThere were only a few beer cans and one wine bottle but the four of them ferreted the finds away into the trunk of their car and drove off, slowing at each blue bin along the way.

People talk about the ‘face’ of poverty all the time. In that instant, I saw four of them. They were real people, a family engaged in the unsavoury business of base-level survival in one of the wealthiest nations on Earth.

Should it be this way? Are we okay, as a society, knowing there are people foraging for tin cans to make enough money to eat or pay their rent? Are we okay knowing that we have institutionalized poverty, here in Lindsay and Kawartha Lakes, as well as the rest of Canada?

Yes, we have made poverty a business. There are people who try their best every day, working in the poverty-fighting business while our poverty rates continue to climb.

Census information released by Statistics Canada this week shows that in 2015, nearly 1.2 million children across Canada were living in low-income households. That’s about 17 per cent of the Canadian population.

And please, let’s not say that we will ‘always have poverty.’

The Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have the lowest rates of child poverty, with less than 7 per cent of kids there living in poor households. Obviously, there is a huge connection between social spending and poverty rates, with the Nordic nations spending far more per capita than Canada does on social programs. It’s no surprise that the leading countries in poverty reduction have strong traditions of wealth redistribution.

The worst nation for child poverty and poverty in general? The United States, land of the not-so-free, still has the highest low income rates among industrialized countries. About 43 per cent of children in the U.S. live in low income families. The U.S. remains one of the most unequal societies in the world, a place where the rich get richer and the poor, poorer.

Canada has a choice to make. Do we want to arc toward the Nordic nations’ social outcomes by creating a more equal, egalitarian society? Bringing in a basic income guarantee, as Lindsay will experience this fall, is a great start. Or would we rather follow the U.S. (as we do too often on far too many things) and choose the path of further inequality?

These are real choices. Both paths are within reach and they are created by actual government policies — not wishful thinking or trickle-nowhere economics. We can advocate for either path, as citizens of this country. We do so by how we vote, what we write in a letter to the editor, the premier, or the prime minister.

After all, the faces of poverty aren’t as abstract as they might first seem. They could be the faces of your neighbours or folks from a neighbourhood or two away.

Ten minutes after the family of four left, a tan-coloured pick-up truck slowed down in front of our house. A thin man in his 50s craned his neck toward our blue box before driving off to the next one.

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