Commentary: What is it we are waiting for?

Social justice — a miracle for those in poverty — requires government and employers to act.

I’m not big on waiting. I know people who are waiting for a miracle and I don’t even have the patience to wait for a bus. I busy myself until the very last minute and then dash out the door and up the street to jump on just in time. No waiting. That’s a miracle in my book.

If I ever needed to wait for something as important as a miracle I’m not sure I’d be up to the task. As much as I have railed against becoming part of this anxiety-ridden culture, running from one thing to the next and seeking gratification to calm the restlessness, I have not escaped.

Now in the Christian calendar we are beginning the season of Advent, known as a season characterized by waiting. The Advent sense of waiting isn’t just about one day or one event; it’s a stance for life that requires patience, self-control and an ability to delay gratification. With instant messaging and so many other immediate responses available in our lives, it’s no wonder we struggle with the spirituality of waiting.

Doctor’s offices are one place where many of us have learned to wait. It’s usually worth the wait when it comes to health care and this week I heard one doctor definitely worth waiting for. Gary Bloch is a family physician in Toronto and chair of the Ontario College of Family Physicians’ committee on poverty and health.

If the government increased minimum wage to $14 an hour that would be a miracle that would help lift low-income workers closer to the poverty line but not over it.

Bloch sees poverty as a disease and is helping medical students and his colleagues to see it the same way. “I decided to treat poverty not as a social or moral issue, but as a disease to be diagnosed and treated like any other.”

The prescription? More income. He talks to his patients about their income and often “prescribes” getting their taxes done and filling out forms related to their health conditions that will increase their income.

“I absolutely see the improvement in my patients’ health,” Bloch said. “For patients that we do manage to get on income supports, their lives often really turn around.”

Low-income Ontarians are waiting for a miracle like this. Out of necessity, they have adopted the stance of waiting. Waiting in line at food banks for food that often complicates health issues; waiting for affordable housing in which no level of government seems willing to invest; waiting for one of the three precarious minimum wage jobs available in their communities; waiting for the miracle of compassion to come down from those in power who can do something about this mess.

Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. All three parties signed on to an effort to reduce poverty for children by 25 per cent in five years. They didn’t come close to meeting that target and there are many adults living in poverty without children. What about them?

If the government increased minimum wage to $14 an hour that would be a miracle that would help lift low-income workers closer to the poverty line but not over it.

If businesses adopted a stance of corporate social responsibility and started paying a living wage, $14.95 an hour in Hamilton, they would ensure their workers were not heading home to live in poverty but would be above the low income cut off and able to participate more fully in community life.

Kathleen Wynne started her premiership with bold words in which she identified herself as the “social justice premier.” With social assistance rates leaving people in the most extreme depths of poverty, and therefore disease, she’s not living up to her chosen identity.

With one in five people living in poverty in Hamilton, we can’t afford to wait. This Monday, there will be a Poor People’s Inquiry at First Pilgrim United church and on Tuesday a forum called #raisethewage will be held at the Central Library.

Your support is needed. What are you waiting for?

Deirdre Pike is a social planner and community activist and can be reached at dpikeatthespec@gmail.com or follow her on twitter at @deirdrepike.