They call it ‘relative poverty.’ Growing up in Lindsay in the east end in the 1970s and early 80s, we didn’t have much money. Mom ensured we didn’t miss any meals and she always did her very best, but I know there were some field trips my younger brother and I missed out on, and our clothing wasn’t always the latest and greatest.
Atari became a thing in my generation, but it was something I would experience only at a friend’s house. Most of the time for fun we did other things, like watch mile-long freight trains inch across Queen Street, hoping they flattened our pennies into new possibilities.
Life back then for me was about the here and now, not the future. When I left home at 17 the only thing I had in my back pocket was the experiences I had gathered at home and the guidance of key teachers – not any kind of monetary boost from family.
I began thinking about the inherent advantages of starting out with such a boost after reading a fascinating study recently by Stan Boutin out of the University of Alberta, on red squirrels.
Turns out that those red squirrels that inherit food reserves from their elders grow up to be much more successful than their peers. They’ve got a little something to get started with in life and it positively impacts not only these specific rodents but the larger red squirrel communities.
The parallels to human society are obvious. It’s the whole ‘equality of opportunity’ versus ‘equality of outcome’ argument. Equality of opportunity people say everyone has an equal chance in life, while conveniently ignoring the fact we’re all starting from different points and that our life experiences create both advantages and disadvantages. A youth whose life was constantly disrupted by homelessness hardly has the same opportunity in life as someone who was born into wealth and familial stability.
Equality of outcome people believe that the general economic conditions of our lives should be fairer, at least to get started. (Certainly there will be some people who will inevitably do more with their opportunities than others.)
My years at Queen Victoria Public School seem long ago now, but also like yesterday. Some of the people I used to know from those early days went on to interesting careers and fulfilling lives. Still many others didn’t.
What keeps me going is knowing we have a chance to advocate for policies that create more fairness and more chances for success for all of us. We can build our community together and improve the shape of our lives and for those lives yet to come.