We need to change the conversation about the haves and the have-nots.
“When anyone is hungry while others have too much to eat, when anyone has no shelter while others live in luxury, or when anyone lives in poverty while others enjoy affluence, justice is not present. Where justice is not present, the quality of all our lives and communities disappears.”
Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, (ISARC)
Based on this statement of truth from ISARC, the quality of all our lives and communities in Hamilton is disappearing. We have a community where almost 90,000 people, including 28,000 children, live in poverty. You could fill Copps Coliseum five times with our sisters and brothers living below the low income cut-off (LICO) and all of the kids in poverty would barely have fit into the old Ivor Wynne Stadium.
At the other end of the economic scale, according to the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton, almost 54,000 people, the top 10 per cent, earn an average of $144,000 a year, a 27 per cent increase over the last 20 years. The top 1 per cent, just over 5,000 folks, is making an average of $406,000, up 47 per cent since 1982. And for the 0.1 per cent on the highest rung, 540 people, their average income is just under $1.3 million.
And somewhere in the middle of those two extremes is the ever-shrinking middle class.
The majority of us belong to the 90 per cent category (including people in poverty) with average earnings of just over $31,000 and the most minimal increase in the last 20 years — just 2 per cent.
This widening gap between “the rich and the rest of us” is of great concern for many reasons. Besides the economic impacts of having so many people among us who are not able to use their skills and abilities to contribute to society, the social impacts of this new reality have proven to be even more troubling.
For example, it’s not the poorest countries in the world that have the worst health outcomes; it’s the ones with the greatest income divide. That’s playing out here in Hamilton where we have neighbourhoods with people who will likely die an average of 19 years earlier than their counterparts in more affluent neighbourhoods.
The average poverty rates in Hamilton by postal codes shows some rural areas with only a 5 percent poverty rate but many more with more than 20 per cent and up to 46 per cent in the downtown core. These numbers not only seem polarizing on paper but they are polarizing our community.
At one end, people in vulnerable economic situations stop trusting the benefits of government and grow more cynical to the point of withdrawing from participating in democracy. One indication of this is low voter turnout.
And at the top of the food chain, there is a belief that those at the bottom should just pull up their socks, quit drinking and get a job. The idea that people on social assistance, 60,000 in Hamilton, are just ripping off the system is prolific, despite the repeated research that shows the rate of fraud in the income tax system is approximately 20 times higher than the rate of fraud in the welfare system.
How can we change the conversation and regain trust in each other? Moving the focus from individual poverty reduction to the promotion and sustainability of inclusive communities where everyone has a better quality of life including access to good jobs with solid income, stable housing and nutritious food allows us to shift from marginalizing people living in low income situations to talking about inequality across the income spectrum.
Everyone’s voice is needed in this conversation. On Tuesday, Hamilton Faith Communities in Action is calling on the voices of people from faith communities to come and explore this conversation on income equality at a day-long forum, “From Charity to Justice” At Centenary United Church, 24 Main St. W., from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. With workshops on income and food security, youth poverty and First Nations justice, people from all faith communities are invited to learn more about changing the conversation from austerity to inclusivity.
For more information, please check out www.sprc.hamilton.on.ca or call 905-522-1148, ext. 302.
Deirdre Pike is a social planner and community activist who lives with her partner in downtown Hamilton.