Since the editor of the site is the same as the publisher, I am given tremendous latitude in who I endorse around here.
In Saskatoon West where I live, I have a choice between:
Randy Donauer: Conservative
Lisa Abbott: Liberal
Sheri Benson: NDP
Of the three, the NDP were the only ones that knocked on my door. A gaggle of Conservatives walked by my door, looked at the address, checked their database and kept walking. Apparently they were not interested in either Wendy or my vote in this election. I wasn’t even robo-called called by the Conservatives or the Liberals. So yeah, thanks for the effort teams.
For me the decision comes down to the Liberals and the NDP, both parties are outside of my federal comfort levels. I have serious problems with both of their platforms but nothing compared to the problems I had with the Conservative campaign.
I also have been poorly served by Kelly Block’s office. When I used to contact Carol Skelton’s office, I always got a personal follow up from Skelton, even when she was a minister. The one time I contacted Kelly Block’s about a serious issue, I was sent Conservative Party talking points by an assistant.
I have watched Randy Donauer as a city councillor and I was greatly disappointed in the change I saw from the time he announced his candidacy until now. He was always a fiscal conservative which is needed but to see him pander that almost exclusively in council meetings was frustrating. From the time that he announced his candidacy, I called on him to resign his seat on council (just as I did when Councillors Paulsen and Hill did when the ran for the Liberals) which is the same as other some other cities require.
As for the Conservative record.
Bill C-51 when the United States has proven that local police will abuse powers.
Elimination of the Mandatory Long Form Census
Botched military procurement (which to be honest, isn’t all their fault)
Seeing military procurement as a job builder rather than equipping the Canadian Forces with the best gear possible.
The Mike Duffy debacle
The Pamela Wallin debacle
The decision to shut down the senate without making a serious effort at reforming it.
Lack of participation with the Premiers
Cutting funding to the Homelessness Partnering Program
The feud with the Supreme Court of Canada
The lack of desire to fix unsafe water conditions on Canadian reserves.
Muzzling of scientists then lying about it.
I grew up in a Conservative household. I was part of PC Youth. I still defend Grant Divine when push comes to shove but I can’t defend this record. Part of me thinks that if another Conservative government had acted like this, Stephen Harper would start his own party… oh right, that is exactly what he did do.
I thought Lisa Abbott has run a great campaign. So great that it may cause an unfavourable vote split between the Liberals and the NDP but that it the first past the post system. She has run the best Liberal campaign I have ever seen in Saskatoon West since I moved here in 1984. Her candidacy (and the Justin Trudeau campaign) have made Liberals relevant in Saskatoon West for the first time ever. I can’t speak highly enough of how she carries herself in this campaign.
As for Sheri Benson, she has been working on issues that political parties ignored during this campaign. Poverty and homelessness for years through the Saskatoon United Way. She has brought different social agencies together (it’s like herding cats but harder) and brought focus to issues that few care about. If Lisa Abbott has been helped by the Trudeau campaign, Benson has probably been hurt by the mediocre NDP campaign (the phrase “You NDP’d that up” for when you should win but don’t is now entering our lexicon).
If I lived in Saskatoon Grasswords, I would vote for Tracy Muggli and in Saskatoon University I’d vote for Cynthia Block. Both are excellent candidates that deserve to be in Ottawa.
Living in Saskatoon West, I am going to endorse Sheri Benson. She has shown the ability to move local issues that few cared about forward and that is what we will need in Ottawa. In a minority government, all parties will need people who can bring people together. Sheri will do that for the NDP.
That being said, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Lisa Abbott for her campaign. She would also make a great MP from what I have seen and if either one of them are unsuccessful, I hope they run again either provincially or federally.
Stephen Harper really seems to have it out for sociology. In 2013, in response to an alleged plot against a VIA train, Harper remarked that we should not â€œcommit sociology,â€ but pursue an anti-crime approach. And last week, in response to the death of Tina Fontaine, Harper argued that an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women is not needed, because this is not a â€œ sociological phenomenon â€ but simply a series of individual crimes.
Of course, not only is all crime a sociological phenomenon , but also without a broader sociological analysis we canâ€™t begin to understand why the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women are tragically high compared to non-indigenous women. Furthermore, itâ€™s clear that if rates of violence against non-indigenous women climbed as high as those of indigenous women, this government (even with its woeful record on womenâ€™s issues) would be more likely to announce not only a public inquiry but a full-scale national strategy. (This double-standard in how we value human lives is what sociologists call â€œracism.â€)
Harperâ€™s two disparaging comments about sociology, however, also need to be understood alongside his gutting of the long-form census in 2010. It is widely accepted that this action fundamentally undermined Canadaâ€™s ability to understand its own demographics, long-term social trends, and inequalities â€” in short, its sociology.
So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcherâ€™s famous claim that â€œthere is no such thing as society.â€) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harperâ€™s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face.
This ideology is so seductive not only because it radically simplifies our world, but also because it mirrors the two social institutions neo-liberals actually believe in â€” the â€œfreeâ€ market and law and order. Everything is reduced to either a simplistic market transaction or a criminal case. In the former, you either have the money to buy stuff, or you donâ€™t and itâ€™s up to you to get more. In the latter, a lone individual is personally responsible for a crime and is punished for it. Easy peasy. No sociology needed.
But thereâ€™s yet another reason this ideology is so hostile toward the kind of sociological analysis done by Statistics Canada, public inquiries and the like. And that has to do with the type of injustices we can even conceive of, or consider tackling, as a society.
You see, sociologists often differentiate between â€œpersonal injusticesâ€ and â€œsystemicâ€ or â€œstructural injustices.â€ Personal injustices can be traced back to concrete actions of particular individuals (perpetrators). These actions are often wilful, and have a relatively isolated victim.
Structural injustices, on the other hand, are produced by a social structure or system. They are often hard to trace back to the actions of specific individuals, are usually not explicitly intended by anyone, and have collective, rather than isolated, victims. Structural injustices are a result of the unintended actions of many individuals participating in a social system together, usually without knowing what each other is doing. Whereas personal injustices are traced back to the harmful actions (or inactions) of individuals, structural injustices are identified by differential societal outcomes among groups. Sociologists call these â€œsocial inequalities.â€
And therein lies the rub. Perhaps the key difference between personal and structural injustices is that the latter are only clearly identifiable through macro-level societal analysis â€” that is, sociology. This is because a) there are no clear perpetrators with whom to identify the injustice and assign responsibility; and b) while structural injustices do generate concrete harms and victims, we often only learn about the collective nature of the injustice through statistical inquiry, or by identifying social/demographic patterns over time.
What should be clear, then, is that Harperâ€™s seemingly bizarre vendetta against sociology is actually an ideological attempt to prevent Canadian society from being able to identify, and tackle, its structural injustices. Without large-scale sociological analyses, we canâ€™t recognize the pervasive, entrenched social inequalities that these analyses reveal. And because structural injustices are actually generated by our social systems, both their causes and solutions are social.
My concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a voluntary one. The rationale for this curious decision was that asking citizens for information about things like how many bathrooms were in their homes was a needless intrusion on their privacy and liberty. One might reasonably wonder how knowledge about the number of toilets you have could enable the government to invade your privacy, but that aside, it became clear that virtually no toilet owners had ever voiced concerns that the long form census, and its toilet questions, posed this kind of threat.
Again, as someone who had used the census â€“ both as a commercial researcher and when I worked on Parliament Hill â€“ I knew how important these data were in identifying not just toilet counts, but shifting population trends and the changes in the quality and quantity of life of Canadians. How could you determine how many units of affordable housing were needed unless you knew the change in the number of people who qualified for affordable housing? How could you assess the appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the amount of disposal income available to eligible recipients?
And even creepier, why would anyone forsake these valuable insights â€“ and the chance to make good public policy â€“ under the pretence that rights were violated when no one ever voiced the concern that this was happening? Was this a one-off move, however misguided? Or, the canary in the mineshaft?
Then came the Long Gun Registry. The federal government made good on their promise to dismantle it regardless of the fact that virtually every police chief in Canada said it was important to their work. Being true to their election promises? Or was there something else driving this decision?
Then, came the promise of a massive penitentiary construction spree which flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence indicating that crime was on the decline. This struck me as a costly, unnecessary move, but knowing this governmentâ€™s penchant to define itself as â€œtough-on-crimeâ€, one could see â€“ at least ideologically â€“ why they did it. But, does that make it right?
Then came the post-stimulus federal budget of 2012 which I eagerly awaited to see if there would be something more here than mere political opportunism.
It was common knowledge that this government had little stomach for the deficit spending that followed the finance crisis of the previous years. And knowing that the public supported a return to balance budgets, it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to be presented with a fairly austere budget document. That the government intended to cut 19,000 civil servant jobs â€“ roughly 6% of the total federal workforce â€“ might have seemed a little draconian, but knowing what we knew, not that shocking.
As part of this package, it was also announced that environmental assessments were to be â€œstreamlinedâ€ and that the final arbitration power of independent regulators was to be curtailed and possibly overridden by so-called â€œaccountableâ€ elected officials. Again, given the priority this government places on economic, and especially resource development, this was not necessarily unpredictable either.
`But when then the specific cuts started to roll out, an alarming trend began to take shape.
First up were those toilet counting, privacy violators at Stats Canada â€“ Â½ (not 6%, but 50%) of employees were warned that their jobs were at risk.
20% of the workforce at the Library and Archives of Canada were put on notice.
CBC was told that it could live with a 10% reduction in their budgetary allocation.
In what was described as the â€œlobotomization of the parks systemâ€ (G &M â€“ May 21, 2012), 30% of the operating budget of Parks Canada was cut, eliminating 638 positions; 70% of whom would be scientists and social scientists.
The National Roundtable on the Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science were, in Orwellâ€™s parlance, â€œvaporizedâ€; saving a grand total of $7.5 million.
The Experimental Lakes Area, a research station that produced critical evidence that helped stop acid rain 3 decades ago and has been responsible for some of our most groundbreaking research on water quality was to be shut down. Savings? $2 million. The northernmost lab in Eureka, Nunavut awaits the same fate.
The unit in charge of monitoring emissions from power plants, furnaces, boiler and other sources is to be abolished in order to save $600,000.
And against the advice of 625 fisheries scientists and four former federal Fisheries Ministers â€“ saying it is scientifically impossible to do â€” regulatory oversight of the fisheries was limited to stock that are of â€œhuman valueâ€.
To add insult to injury, these amendments was bundled in with 68 other laws into one Budget Bill, so that â€“ using the power of majority government â€“ no single item could be opposed or revoked.
On the other side of the ledger however, the Canada Revenue Agency received an $8 million increase in its budget so that it had more resources available to investigate the political activity of not-for-profit and charitable organizations.
Ok, so now the facts were beginning to tell a different story. This was no random act of downsizing, but a deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making â€“ namely, using research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions. It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government policies.
While the Federation of Canadian Municipalities were in town, I helped give a series of tours of an affordable housing project. There were mayors, city councillors, and city administrators who came though, looked around and asked a lot of questions. Most had to do with funding streams but on the last tour the questions were focused around problems of homelessness in Saskatoon. I was going to give my thoughts but I asked them, â€œdo any of your jurisdictions study root issues of social issues?â€ None of them did.
Despite the excellent work that City has done going back 36 years with the publication of our Neighbourhood Profiles, we have a limited understanding of many problems in Saskatoon because we donâ€™t collect or have access of the data we need to really understand the issues. We arenâ€™t alone. Governmentâ€™s around the world make all sorts of decisions without fully understanding the consequences of their decision because of a lack of data. One example is the United Kingdomâ€™s attempt to regulate fishing in the English Channel. According to political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixonâ€™s book â€œThe Ingenuity Gapâ€, scientists in England are unable to list all of the species of fish in the channel but are expected to manage the fishery. How can you solve a problem if you donâ€™t understand it?
There is a movement growing around the world called Open Data. It is the idea that a lot of government data should be made available to the public so we can not only hold the government accountable but also so we can make better commercial and societal decisions. The idea has been around for a long time but picked up with the adoption of the internet. One of the launching off points was in 2004 when the Ministers of Science of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development signed a declaration calling for all publicly funded archive data to be made publicly available. Itâ€™s based on the idea that there is a lot of information out there but we donâ€™t have access to it.
Perhaps the biggest implementation of Open Data is the U.S. government project called Data.gov. Itâ€™s purpose is to make available U.S. government data to anyone in a format that can be used. Some department contribute more data than others. As you would expect, departments like the Environmental Protection Agency submit a lot of high quality data sets while the Department of Defense offers up very little. Even the Railroad Retirement Board is submitting data to the project. The wide range of data is fascinating. There is real time data on airline departure and arrival time, lists of failed banks, lists of closed government data centers, marriage rates in the Armed Forces and even the data behind a tire rating system.
Canada is getting on the Open Data bandwagon as well. Tony Clement started us down the path towards being more open and transparent with data.gc.ca which already has over 12,000 datasets including over 8,000 from StatsCan and another 3200 from Agriculture Canada. Despite the progress, itâ€™s an uphill battle as witnessed by Canada Postâ€™s recent lawsuit saying that a collection of postal codes violates itâ€™s copyright.
Locally municipalities started opening up their data as well. Several municipalities have online crime maps, the Edmonton Police Service one of the best implementations of the idea. It allows you to see a crime breakdown on a map of a neighbourhood for time periods up to the last 60 days. The stated reason is accountability and it achieves that but that data also puts valuable information in the hands of citizens. If I know that cars are being stolen on my block, I am going to be much more aware of the people I see acting suspiciously. If I know there are assaults happening on a route I walk, I can avoid the area.
Thatâ€™s not all, with open data and the right tools, you can start to layer on other data bits and see what factors like unemployment, elementary classroom sizes, types of businesses, or even the impact of different kinds of street lighting do to make the problem better or worse. Itâ€™s not the first data set that gives the answers, itâ€™s multiple layers of data that start to make the picture clearer. Once we start to understand the problem, we can start to identify the solutions.
Open Data is a lot easier to believe in than implement. Not only do you have to have the right data but you need it in a format that is machine readable and portable. Thatâ€™s a significant technological hurdle in organizations that use custom written software. The payoff however of better decisions by policy makers and business leaders and a more engaged and educated populace could be well worth the cost.
"Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings." Nelson Mandela
This is the third in a series on poverty, homelessness, and a concentration of services in Saskatoonâ€™s inner city. You can find part 1 and part 2 in the archives.
Poverty in Saskatoon
Poverty looks different in different cities. In North American where food costs are more or less similar, you have five factors that influence where you are in relation to the the poverty line that I am going to look at.
Saskatoon does have high rent. A one bedroom apartment on the east side of the city will run you $1000/month. While there are cheaper apartments, most of those are located in the cityâ€™s core neighbourhoods. As housing prices have doubled and tripled, rents have done the same. A quick survey of friends who are renting often described at least a $100/month rental increase last January 1st with a notice of another one coming this January 1st. $200/month increase over one year is very difficult for any family no matter where you are in the economic spectrum.
While Saskatoon Transit does a good job (unless we have had snow or you want to get to the airport), Saskatoon is a city based on freeways and driving. While some American cities like Boston have been shaped by their subways, Saskatoon has been shaped by our cars which means that city attractions and commercial districts are shaped by parking, not ease of access for public access. The Ministry of Social Services has made it easier for itâ€™s clients to get around by making available bus passes for $20/month. A regular adult bus pass is $71.00 and a single trip ticket is $2.75 which seems high but when compared to rates in New York, Boston, or Toronto, itâ€™s about the same.
So Saskatoon has reasonably priced transportation, SaskEnergy does a decent job of hedging natural gas prices to keep our natural gas rates stable rather than fluctuating and food prices are what they are. While we may not like the idea of Wal-Mart dominating the world, their entrance into Saskatoon does keep food prices lower (and makes it even harder for downtown grocery stores to compete). One factor with food prices that gets overlooked is accessibility to reasonably priced food. While Wal-Mart may have the best price on a block of cheese in town, if it costs you a lot to get there, it doesnâ€™t help. Iâ€™ll talk some more about this in a moment.
While family income trends tell us about how many people in Saskatchewan are doing in absolute terms, it is important to examine the ability of the income to provide a reasonable quality of life. Statistics Canadaâ€™s Low Income Cut-Offs (LICOs) are widely used to measure poverty in Canada (Statistics Canada, 2006b; Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). Statistics Canada (2006c) defines the LICO as the income level at which a family spends 20% more of their income on food, shelter, and clothing than the average family of a comparable size. In 2005, the after-tax LICO was $22,069 per year for a family of three living in a community of 100,000 to 499,999 people and $27,532 per year for a family of four (Statistics Canada, 2006c). In the same year, the poverty line for families in rural areas was $17,071 for a three-person family and $21,296 for a four-person family (Statistics Canada, 2006c). At incomes at or below LICO levels, Saskatchewan residents are using substantially more of their available income to acquire the basics of life compared to their fellow citizens.
CUISR went out and created a snapshot of what low income families in Saskatchewan look like.
Saskatchewanâ€™s Aboriginal citizens and families are consistently overrepresented in low income indicators. Although Aboriginal people have made significant gains in the last 20 years compared to other provincial groups, Statistics Canadaâ€™s 2006 Census data indicate that 37% of Saskatchewanâ€™s Aboriginal population was living at or below the LICO (Statistics Canada, 2008a) and Canadian Council on Social Development, n.d.). While this represented a large improvement of 16 percentage points relative to the 1996 Census, Aboriginal peoples continue to experience a much higher poverty level when compared to all persons in Saskatchewan.
When looking at the income levels for people on Social Services CUISR found this
When examining Saskatchewanâ€™s social assistance incomes, an overall decrease in the last decade is evident. Between 1996 and 2005, social assistance incomes eroded in real terms among all recipient groups, by more than 7%; the welfare incomes of people with disabilities on social assistance experienced the greatest drop (by 15.5%).
It should be noted that Saskatchewan raised its social assistance rates in 2008; currently, a single employable person in Saskatoon or Regina would qualify for a benefit of about $8,000 (See Appendix II).
At the end of the day the average Canadian single mother who is below the poverty line is below it by about $7500. When people talk about people living below the poverty line, they are not missing it by a dollar or two.
In my last post, I showed income breakdowns for Saskatoonâ€™s core neighbourhoods. To recap there are 1726 households trying to love on under $15,000 a year and another 1567 households trying to get by under $30,000 a year? Of those families, a staggering 780 of them are trying to get by on under $10,000 per year. How do they live?
Many of the householdâ€™s living under $15,000 a year are either on Social Services, struggling by on part time employment or on Social Services (either SAP or TEA). If you are living on Social Services, your income is going to be a lot less than $15,000/year. Check out the current Social Services rate card and do the math on how little money that is.
As the Social Services Rate Card shows, you see that there is around $459 for rent (more on that later) and $255 to cover food, toiletries, clothes, bills, and others. That isnâ€™t a lot of money but it wasnâ€™t until I had it broken down for me by a budget management worker that I realized how little it was.
Months ago I had some staff break down the Social Services rate card. With the new womenâ€™s shelter coming online soon, I wanted them to come up with a move out formula that would actually work. Since many of the men and women we deal with are defined as â€œunemployableâ€ by Social Services, we needed to help them find a way to live within that financial framework. We couldnâ€™t find a way of making it in the slightest without using services provided by the Saskatoon Food Bank, the Friendship Inn, and the Salvation Army. As I reviewed our notes the other day, I saw that we didnâ€™t take into consideration tobacco consumption which makes a really tough financial situation even worse. Here is what we learnedâ€¦
Impact of Housing Costs
If you are single you have $255 a month after your rent (or most of it) is paid. If you have health concerns like diabetes or a disease like HIV, you get more to cover proper nutrition. That doesnâ€™t sound that bad. I have had three different budget management workers/trustees from different agencies have told me that one can live on that amount as long as the person doesnâ€™t make a single mistake. That amount includes a discounted bus pass and free Leisure Card and your rent is paidâ€¦ that is if you can somewhere to rent for your allocated amount. Now now problems start.
You can technically live anywhere in town (and therefore leave the inner city behind) but you have some problems. First of all there is the Rental Supplement which you have to qualify for and in todayâ€™s rental market you need the Rental Supplement. To qualify for the Rental Supplement, your location in the city (in part) determines whether or not you get it and how much you get. The reality is that if you are living in Riversdale, Pleasant Hill, and areas closer to St. Paulâ€™s or another hospital, increases your chances to get the supplement. Now if you donâ€™t qualify, you need have pay the difference from your personal allowance. This is going to increase your need on services like the Saskatoon Food Bank, The Salvation Army Community Services, Friendship Inn, and other agencies which actually encourages you to live in walking distance to them. Of course even if you do find a place that rents to you, the Ministry of Social Services letter of guarantee is only for the amount of money that you are allowed for housing, which means that you have to come up with the rest in cash to cover your damage deposit. The current system actually encourages a concentration of services and poverty.
Even if you can afford to move into a different part of town, the landlords may not want you there. A client I helped find an apartment for was charged a $50 â€œviewing feeâ€ to see an apartment. I havenâ€™t met anyone yet who didnâ€™t see that as an attempt to keep people receiving Social Service benefits from seeing the building. Over a period of three or four months, this client, myself, and another social worker was stood up numerous times by landlords on viewings, largely because the client was on Social Services. I was there when the client was told to his face that they â€œprobably wonâ€™t rent to someone on welfareâ€. We had some staff from AIDS Saskatoon in a while ago talking to our staff and we also learned that some landlords are doing a kind of credit check on clients to decide if the client can â€œaffordâ€ the apartment. I was shocked but itâ€™s a story we have heard lots since then. Are any of us surprised that their formula disqualifies low income/Social Services clients? Of course not all landlords are like that. I have met some wonderful ones who are all over the city. In fact the client who I was talking about was helped by a landlord who went out of their way to get this client and family into their apartment because they saw it as the right thing to do. Yet on the other hand we are kidding ourselves if we donâ€™t think that there are some Donald Sterlingesqe landlords out there who are making it very tough on people because of race or class in the city. (if you got the Donald Sterling reference without clicking on the link, I am impressed).
Of course moving in only part of the journey. I was also shocked to find out there are no more move in grants. No money for beds, mop, broom, cleaning supplies, SHOWER CURTAIN, pots and pans. I have access to the donations given to the Salvation Army Community Services (we have a dock for a reason) and all of that was free but even after all of that was said and done, Wendy and I dropped $100 of our own money for essentials and believe me, there was nothing on that list that all of us would not consider an essential.
To be fair there is another alternative to move in grants, if you are on Social Services, you can apply for a twice a year advance of $240 and that would help them set up an apartment but that money comes off their check $40 a month over six months (which takes down the $255/month to $215/month). If for some reason you donâ€™t qualify for the Rental Supplement, you have to pay the difference in rent out of your personal living allowance. Your $255 can quickly become $100. One budget management worker I talked to told me that she practically begs her clients not to take this $240 â€œwindfallâ€ because of the financial problems it can cause later on for them.
Eating Right on Social Services
So you have $255 (or $215 or $100) each month (now there are extra resources if you have selected medical issues) which is anywhere from $53 to $65 (or $25) per week for groceries, hygiene products, and clothes. That causes itâ€™s own problems because where do you get that stuff in Riversdale/Pleasant Hill? There are no low priced grocery stores in easy walking distance (although there is now one downtown and a small Asian food store on 20h) which makes it difficult to get ahead because you donâ€™t have the resources to buy anything in bulk or take advantage of savings at Costco, Real Canadian Wholesale Club or even Co-opâ€™s big case lot sale? Again you have a lack of financial margin and you have a lack of accessibility to do purchases like this. While Saskatoon has a whole has more vehicles than residents,according to 2006 census data the core neighborhoods have 0.4 cars per person. When I worked at 33rd Street Safeway, once a month we saw a steady stream of cabs pulling up as people on Social Services bought groceries. You have two problems with that happening. A small grocery amount is made a lot smaller by having to take a cab to Safeway (or Supertore/Walmart/Extra Foods/Sobeys) for groceries and you have that money leaving the area (and area that is in need of that money). An even worse decision is those who do their grocery stopping at a convenience store. A couple of times when I worked the 4-12 shift at the Salvation Army, I would run low on change which makes it hard for the front desk to make change for clients who come in and buy breakfast (best $3 breakfast in the city). Once I stopped by a convenience store on the day checks were handed out. I honestly thought a riot had gone through the store. It wasnâ€™t, it was people purchasing groceries. I canâ€™t think of a quicker way to make an already small check, even smaller. Thankfully this has changed somewhat since Giant Tiger came to town but you still have no fresh fruit and vegetables. While I probably could have lived on Giant Tigerâ€™s selection when I was single (Kraft Dinner, Ichiban noodles, Pizza Popsâ€¦ repeat), it is lacking a lot of stuff that families need and there isnâ€™t the money left over to even purchase a Good Food Box from CHEP.
The other part of the equation that food is a commodity and therefore subject to price fluctuations and is really sensitive to other commodity prices, such as oil. All of this is explained in detail in Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubin and The Long Emergency by James Kunstler who point out the impact that higher oil prices have on farm input costs. As oil goes up, so does fuel for machineries, cost of fertilizers, and more crops get moved from being a food crop and become a fuel crop for ethanol (unlike Brazil which had the foresight not to use a food crop for ethanol, we decided to use corn and maize here, largely in deference to the importance that Iowa places in Presidential primaries). The basic math is higher energy prices equals higher food prices.
Three years ago when gas prices spiked to abnormally high prices we saw the impact on our clientele at work. We went from about 60,000 served meals a year to close to 100,000 meals served a year. Not only were people hit hard by rising energy prices, they were hit hard by the increase in food prices. All around the city you saw charts in restaurants explaining why their prices were going up and why they had to charge more to bring in some more revenue to pay for it. The same thing happened here but the people who used our services didnâ€™t have the option of increasing revenue. We just did an in house survey of why people come to the Salvation Army meal program and the dominant answer given was, â€œno food at homeâ€ and this is a program designed for people who are not receiving benefits from the Ministry of Social Services (and therefore hopefully have more resources). I wish we had done one a couple of years ago. I assume the numbers would have been much, much, higher.
The Lack of Discretionary Income
So even if you have money for food and rent, there are still other expensesâ€¦ like laundry is another big issue. You get $10 if you are single for laundry and soap and $20 if you are a family. The problem is that a lot of apartments charge $3 for a load and in case you havenâ€™t noticed, there are not a lot of laundromats in town. When we were looking at countless duplexes and fourplexes while trying to find a place for the Mumford House, many houses had a bed room filled five or six feet high full of clothes. That same summer I joined a co-worker to check out a house that had been set on fire (she didnâ€™t want to get punched in the face by the landlord so she brought me along to get punched in the face â€“ luckily for my face, he was pretty cool and not prone to violence). Again in the basement there was clothes piled high enough that neither one us could walk upright down there. Later it finally clicked in that it was cheaper to come to the Salvation Army or the Food Bank every couple of weeks and just get different clothes rather than doing laundry. Anything to save some money.
My point is that, you can make it as long as you donâ€™t make a mistake which in the end, is the Government of Saskatchewanâ€™s goal. Coming up with Social Services rates is tricky business. If you set the amount too low, people just canâ€™t live but if you have too high of an amount, it discourages people from working and you can really upset voters. In the end you get stuck with the number that we have now. Just barely enough for someone to live and definitely not comfortably.
This takes a toll not only on individuals but also on a community if in high enough concentration.
As for the family, I understand a bit of that. My mom raised a family of four of us on $1350 a month plus what we got for Family Allowance. $700 of that was mortgage and the rest was just paying for life. From 1988-89, we kind of totally disengaged from society because we had no money at all. We didnâ€™t go out, we didnâ€™t take weekend trips, we didnâ€™t do anything. There was just no money. We were involved in the church but even things like youth group took money and so I didnâ€™t attend those weeks. Our summer vacation consisted of a trip to a used bookstore on Primrose Drive. They sold a two cubic foot box of books for $1. There was a bunch of Harlequin Books but there was other cool stuff as wellâ€¦ university textbooks, Instant Replay by Jerry Kramer, The Game by Ken Dryden and The Winds of War by Herman Wouk. We went three times and our expenditures outside of bills that summer was a total of $3. That was it. That was all of the extra money we had. I find myself looking back it with some nostalgia but it was a horrible summer and a part of a grind that went on and on and on.
It isnâ€™t just one single thing that poverty does, it just grinds you down day by day by day. My mother was diabetic and living under that kind of financial stress does not lend itself to eating well. She started a downward spiral that took her leg and later contributed to her inability to fight the cancer. Diabetes is called a â€œdisease of povertyâ€ and as a Type II diabetic I understand that now more than I ever did then. On top of the food that is diabetic friendly (which isnâ€™t cheap), I now spend $100/month to control the nerve pain. Neuragen and Alpha Lipolic acid arenâ€™t covered by the Saskatchewan Drug Plan (while highly addictiveOxycontin which does nothing for the pain was covered). Poor quality food, inadequate diabetic care, and enormous stress. I didnâ€™t realize it at the time but in a lot of ways, those years changed all of us for the worse. We withdrew from our community, our friends, and an edge developed that has probably stuck with me for far too long. There wasnâ€™t one thing that did it, we just got ground down and that was only a couple of years of it.
We have seen the impact on poverty on an entire region. One of the most enjoyable things I had the opportunity to do while as the pastor of Lakeland Church in Spiritwood was listening to some of the older members of the church tell their stories of the Great Depression. Those stories all started light hearted and funny and then turned serious and sombre as the years took their tool and the stories got darker. Donâ€™t take my word for it, read Pierre Bertonâ€™s book, The Great Depression and read the stories yourself. If you are looking for a current version of it, read this eye opening series called The New Poor in the New York Times.
Gang activity is commonplace among disadvantaged minority groups including Afro-American, Hispanic and aboriginal groups. They are drawn together by a sense of race, protection and shared experience. When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix. Couple this with drug and alcohol addiction and you have the recipe for young people to group together in gangs.
Gang life is hard with few real rewards. Recruiters let the uninitiated think that in a gang they will get the iPod, the fancy car and other status symbols. Gang activities include violence, robbery, prostitution and drug dealing. In the end the reality is nothing compared to the dream presented by the gang recruiters.
When gang members reach their late 20s they have no education or work experience, they have rap sheets as long as their arms and they most likely have a drug problem. They are burned out and unemployable.
And those are the lucky ones. Some will be killed and still others will do life for murder or other long stretches for their crimes. The dream of the 15-year-old for power and wealth is gone and it never existed.
One of the things that have bothered me as I read The Life and Death of the American City by urban theorist Jane Jacobs is that she speaks of a strong neighbourhood bond is needed to maintain safety and prosperity in a community. I kept wondered what happened to it in parts of Saskatoon. The answer is found in bits and pieces in a variety of books I read this summer (at the end of this series Iâ€™ll post a reading list if you want to read more) but the short answer is that poverty grinds away those ties that keep a community together, especially when poverty is concentrated. (which I think is at the core of what Pat Lorje is saying and something Iâ€™ll spend some time exploring when I post the next post in this series Monday night).
A decade ago there wasnâ€™t the need for the concentration of poverty in Saskatoon. In 1997, a great apartment I had in a fun part of City Park went for $250 a month. I was making a little over minimum wage working at Burron Lumber. The combination of low rent, great location, and a simple lifestyle (bills were food, phone, and $268 car payment) meant that despite making minimum wage, I had money to spend. I watched every Rider game at Seafood Samâ€™s with a pacing, anxious, chain smoking Sam himself living and dying with every Saskatchewan Roughriders win and loss, and we used to walk down to a downtown coffee shop named Nervous Harold’s many nights for a iced coffee and a late supper. By choice I didnâ€™t have a television but I had money to spend to enjoy life around Saskatoon. I donâ€™t have any vices but I think I could have even afforded to smoke a bit. Today that very small one room apartment is going for almost $800/month, which is more than my mortgage. To find an affordable apartment on minimum wage, I canâ€™t live in City Park unless I want to pick up a second job which grinds one down in a different way. Over the years both Wendy and I have worked two jobs when we have needed to. What seems sustainable at first slowly grinds you down in different ways and you have that same kind of withdrawal from your community, often from fatigue and exhaustion. Again back to Doug Cuthandâ€™s comments.
When the economic and social doors are closed or hard to open, people tend to turn to illegal activity as a quick fix.
This was best articulated to me when I was at a Correctional Services of Canada seminar on womenâ€™s corrections. One of the things that was mentioned throughout the day was what many women in poverty will have to do to survive. It ranges from robbery, prostitution, drug dealingâ€¦ the illegal activities that we all see in Saskatoon but never really get to what is really causing them. When caught in poverty, you have to turn somewhere. I have heard the police talk about prostitutes starting working the street and losing their virginity to johns at 13. The girls often recruit each other as they see it as a good source of easy money without ever having the chance to realize the cost they are about to pay. Again, its the pursuit of the iPods, cars, or as I wrote about a couple of years ago, even food. There is what Cuthand said, an easy turn to the riches that gangs offer up (read the first chapter of Freakonomics to see that most gangs pay very poorly at the bottom of the pyramid). Or there is a turn to substance abuseâ€¦ beer, hard liquor, crack, meth, modelling glue, solvents, paint, Lysol, Listerine, methadone, hand sanitizer, you name it, I have seen it abused. It starts out as an escape and turns into a prison and later a personal version of hell.
This kind of aligns itself with a conversation I had a with a local politician who said to me that they were surprised at the level of racial anger they have heard lately. Being married to someone of mixed Guyanese descent (Amerindian, Bihari, British, and Black according to her DNA tests), racism has always both interested and concerns me. Racism (which is going both ways) seems to be coming out the micro economic future that people are looking at. Itâ€™s their personal economy that doesnâ€™t work. Income doesnâ€™t cover rent or food which creates a lack of hope. Soon the the despair sets in, especially when you realize that hard work wonâ€™t deliver you out of this and it gives to anger and a need to blame someone else. You see this in American political and race rhetoric. How many times did Lou Dobbs say, â€œThese Mexican illegal’s are taking good American jobsâ€ which ignores the fact that Americanâ€™s donâ€™t want them and the jobs arenâ€™t very good in the first place. Is it a coincidence that Romaâ€™s in France are being persecuted during a time of difficult economic times?
During the times that my family was at our poorest and things looked extremely bleak, I never had any doubt that eventually life would turn around and things were going to be better one day if I worked hard. To use Doug Cuthandâ€™s language, the door was pretty easy to open. My first apartment was in a prime downtown neighbourhood for $250 and affordable with a minimum wage job. Your options are limited today if you do not have what many would define as a high paying job or are a one wage earning household.
I have spent hours this week trying to articulate the change in the residents of the shelter over the last four years. It clicked in today that the difference was that there has been a loss of hope. The wages havenâ€™t changed but everything else has gotten more expensive and less accessible. While I have only lived in Saskatoon since 1984, I have been here long enough to see some bad times before the good times hit. While a large majority of Saskatoon has benefitted from the economic prosperity that has come to Saskatoon. Not all have. Of course the question that all cities have is, â€œwhatâ€™s the best way to address this?â€ Iâ€™ll start looking at solutions on Tuesday.