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Bad Policy Choices Have Led to Growing Inequality

What’s normal? 

It was brought to my attention recently by a friend with teenage children that there is a need for that generation,  and perhaps even their parents’ generation to know that the need for food banks, and the current extent of homelessness, is not normal. Not normal in the sense that these sad realities at one time were not normal. Not normal in the sense that these sad realities are not inevitable, but are the consequences of deliberate public policy choices made by governments of the past. Not normal in the sense that these sad realities can be made not normal again by the right public policy choices, in terms of economic policy, housing policy, and mental health policy, to name a few.

These sad realities have their origin in a number of bad policy choices.

It is not a coincidence that Winnipeg's food bank, Winnipeg Harvest, celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2020.

By 1985 we were five years into the neo-liberal era brought on by the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the U.S.  They advocated policies like cutting taxes for the rich, cutting social assistance for the poor and the working poor, reducing the role of government in providing for the common good, reducing the power of unions to advocate for adequate wages, and basically letting the "market" decide.

Over the next forty years the " market" decided that the rich would get richer, the middle class would struggle, and the poor would get poorer. The current rate of economic inequality makes the seventies look like an egalitarian dream. CEOs that only made $500,000 back then might make 5 million or a lot more today.

Cutting taxes for the rich did not lead to economic investment that would cause economic benefits to " trickle-down". The only thing that trickled down was you know what, while power and income trickled up, and up, and the adequacy of wages shrunk, and shrunk.
Hence the fact that many who need and use food banks, and even some of the homeless are. people with jobs.

In Canada, homelessness was advanced when the federal government, in 1995, abandoned its role in housing, and particularly affordable housing, leaving it up to the provinces.

Homelessness was also advanced by " de-institutionalization". This was the name given to the idea that people with mental health problems would be better off in the community than in institutions. It was a good idea, but many warned that it would only work if the appropriate community supports were put in place. They weren't, and many were deinstitutionalized onto the street to make it on their own with help available only in times of crisis or emergency, and not always then.

When I was working in community ministry in Winnipeg's North End in the late seventies, requests for help for food were very rare. Social assistance rates were not generous, but they were much more sufficient. Over the years, across the country, they were sometimes reduced, and sometimes stagnated. Even otherwise progressive governments were reluctant to raise them, and go against what had become, for far too many, the conventional wisdom.

All this by way of explaining, in an obviously limited way, to younger people who surely must wonder why there are encampments of the homeless in their city, and in bus shelters, that it didn't have to be so, and it doesn't have to be so in the future. The current situation is a choice.  Our common responsibility, young or older, is to make our politicians make the right choices, and to support those who already advocate such choices.

COVID has aggravated all this, but at least it’s existence was not a policy choice, unless you subscribe to one of the conspiracy theories that claim otherwise. In dealing with it, however, we have had to contend with some other bad policy choices of the past, particularly with respect to the lack of any Canadian capacity to produce our own vaccines. Like when the Tories under Mulroney sold off our publicly owned Connaught Laboratories.