Hank, the starfish, and the poverty in front of us
Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.
One day, a man was walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one.
Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. Without looking up from his task, the boy simply replied, “I’m saving these starfish, sir.”
The man chuckled. “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
I’ve always loved this old parable. It came back to me this summer as I watched my daughter do the same thing as the young boy. For her, this story played out on the east coast of Prince Edward Island where we were travelling.
The parable speaks on many levels — to our perceptions of personal power, to our understanding of limitations, and to our feelings of usefulness in the world. It also forces us to ask ourselves if we really must change the world, or perhaps just some small part that we have control over?
Hank Weston is something of a starfish who I met in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. He was thin-faced and grey as he begged quietly on the steps of an RBC. He wore faded jeans, a blue plaid shirt, and a straw cowboy hat with a Corona beer button stuck to the centre. Between his feet a transparent Starbucks cup held a flash of silver coins.
Like Stompin’ Tom Connors, one of Canada’s legendary folk/country singers, Hank was raised on the northern shore of P.E.I. From our conversation it was easy to see that he identified with Stompin’ Tom’s take on life – that the corporations were in it for themselves, government was the enemy, and that the ‘little guy’ was getting shafted in the process.
We chatted about Skinner’s Pond, where Stompin’ Tom was raised, and then Hank reminisced about working out west for many years in the construction and carpentry trades. There wasn’t much of Canada he hadn’t seen and we each agreed that we lived in a beautiful country.
Now 64, Hank was clearly washed up on the shores of life’s circumstances. He was entangled in poverty and still missing his wife who had passed on two years ago. Together, they had always at least been able to make a go of life, financially.
After his wife died, he not only became depressed he also found himself in financial dire straits. Now he only gets $93 a month from the Canada Pension Plan and a welfare stipend that doesn’t meet his basic needs, or even close. He’s just one year away from his Guaranteed Income Supplement now, but these last few years of deep poverty had clearly taken their toll on his health and well-being.
While we both agreed we live in a beautiful country, I realized that for him he was only talking about the land. There was a world of divergence otherwise.
He told me that all the politicians were “lining their pockets,” and that the government “didn’t care” about people like him.
In my worldview, government can – and should – be a force for good. So it was difficult for me to hear what he was saying.
I wondered what we were doing to Hank, and people like him. Are we not all like starfish, at the mercy of life’s tides? And if we believe this, then why do we construct a world where five people now own half the world’s wealth? Why do we allow poverty in Canada, when our GDP has never been higher and we have millions of dollars in tax breaks for corporations?
It doesn’t need to be this way. A basic income, like we’re testing here in Lindsay right now, could ensure that Hank and anyone who finds themselves in similar circumstances won’t be left behind. It would leave the stigma and inadequacy of welfare behind in favour of giving people a hand up to other opportunities, by providing a decent income floor.
Unlike our starfish parable, though, it’s beyond any one person to toss Hank Weston a lifeline. He needs a decent chance to save himself, with a leg up from his government.