Category Archives: Welfare

The Language of Austerity: ‘Working Poor’

Amidst all the debates about austerity, debt and stimulus packages, albeit rarely spoken about explicitly, lie notions of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ people, whether they be poor, unemployed or otherwise. These ‘values’ lie below the surface when such words are not actually mentioned.

Notions of deserving and undeserving poor have enabled other people, i.e. those with decent incomes, to ignore and/or complain about the ‘undeserving’ while bestowing ‘charity’ upon those deemed more ‘deserving’. The latter, in turn, who are expected to demonstrate ‘gratitude’ for whatever handouts are provided. (What is missing is the recognition of the system as having any role in all of this, which, as you know, is ridiculous.)

One term that has not received a lot of attention, at least to my own knowledge, is that of ‘working poor’. The term itself appears to reinforce the notion that the poor do not ‘work’, hence the adjective. Although redundancy in language use is rather common (i.e. adding an adjective or adverb where one is not needed), the more formal use of this phrase is not yet redundant, though perhaps becoming more so. That is, work has ceased to be a way out of poverty for an increasing number of people in most Anglophone countries (of the North Atlantic) at least (since their political parties of the centre and right (aka neoliberal and neoconservative) share similar approaches to work, austerity and welfare). Of course, many probably still believe the idea that a job — any job — will get you out of poverty. It takes time to change (so-called) ‘common sense’, but it does change.

While the notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor were linguistic counterparts to the social-economic structure of 19th century society, with the arrival of the ‘working poor’ as a significant albeit still minor portion of the working population, the ‘poor house’ is no longer a necessity. Instead, of course, we have prisons to replace the 19th century ‘workhouse’ and post-secondary education increasingly becomes a ‘holding tank’ for the ‘other-wise’ unemployed and enable the building up of debt for young people to ensure they are forever ‘working poor’ (youth unemployment rates in Canada and Europe are at their highest levels in decades). (When students are working part-time or in summers during their post-secondary education, they are more hopeful that such a situation is only temporary and will be quickly rectified once they graduate — and, as such, they are also less likely to want to organize and fight back against bad employers.)

An important counterpart of ‘working poor’ is ‘being poor’ or the fact that, as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in Manitoba pointed out a couple of years ago, it takes ‘all day to be poor’. That is, what people who have never been poor, or never been on welfare or unemployment benefit/employment insurance, don’t understand, is the amount of work that you have to put in to deal with just the everyday realities of living on next to nothing.

(http://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/commentary/fast-facts-it-takes-all-day-be-poor)

Postscript: I forgot to add that ‘poor’ can also be read as an adverb for ‘working’ or as an adjective for ‘working’ as a noun, whereby the emphasis (in speech is on the ‘working’) also indicates a development as being poor at working or most likely working but poor. This latter emphasis is also a result,  not only of working at minimum wage or at wages below the ‘Low Income Cut-off’ or ‘poverty line’, but also when employers refuse to pay you your wages or delay your pay: i.e. ‘wage theft’. But, that is another issue for another time.

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Filed under Frames and Framing, Language, Politics, Poverty, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

Harper: Pensioners as ‘Threats’ to Economy? Reveals much about how work is ‘downgraded’

The comments that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made about the “threat” that Canadian elders represent to the economy and future of the country at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, should not have been unexpected.

Harper has never forsaken nor rejected his neoliberal beliefs and support for the corporate elite (who have been framed by the occupy movement as the “1%” [though they tend to be a much smaller group of closely linked people than this figure suggests], as opposed to the rest of us, the “99%”). For Harper and his ilk, what furthers the bottom line of private, for-profit corporations is of value. The people, though, who make a corporation or government or any other organization work, are not.

Perhaps, Harper has read too much of the “Great CEOs” of history. It’s not just Harper, though. So much in our corporate-owned and controlled media extol the virtues and values of the “great men of business” without a thought about the people who actually do the work. None of them would be worth their bonuses without us, the 99%, doing all the work.

This is the same as the Caterpillar lock-out of nearly 500 workers at the Electro-Motive Diesel Plant in London, Ontario, on 1 January 2012 because the executives wanted to cut their wages and benefits by more than 50%, even in spite of huge profits made by the company. This is how the members of Canadian Auto Workers Local 27 are rewarded for decades of hard work, increased productivity, skills and expertise?!

Just as Caterpillar appears to have little use or regard for the human beings that make the goods, so do Harper and the Conservatives show how little they value what retired workers have done for this country over the previous decades.

Yet, many of these hard-working Canadians have been ripped off by executives and governments. For example, provincial and federal governments allowed or even enabled executives to raid the pension funds of employees in the private sector, and now politicians, like Harper, turn around and complain that the public pension system is not sustainable. Or that public sector workers have pensions that will allow them to retire (modestly) and even that is somehow wrong.

This is part of the de-valuation or degradation of work and its value in society by the very elites that benefit from the work of the 99%.

It also explains Harper’s degradation of the work of our elders, people who have worked and followed the rules all their lives. They’ve struggled to build this country and worked hard.

I think it is worth (re)reading Bertolt Brecht’s poem from to get the perspective from the 99%:

“A Worker Reads History”

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with names of kings.
Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed.
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet
was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.
Who triumphed with him?

Each page a victory
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.
So many questions.

(See this link to follow up some informative comments and thoughts on Brecht’s poem: http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/2003/12/worker-reads-history-bertolt-brecht.html)

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Filed under Cutbacks, Democracy, Economics, History, News, Pensions, Politics, Poverty, Uncategorized, Wages, Welfare, Work and working conditions

Should you (the 99%) pay for parties for the 1%?

Since 31 July 2011, the largest province of Canada, Ontario, has cut the ‘Special Diet Allowance’ of $250 for people on welfare. Welfare rates have been cut by 55% since the Progressive Conservative Party got into power in 1995.

As a result, people who have exhausted their unemployment benefits (E.I.) and their savings and are forced onto the dole, have very little to live on – even if they didn’t have to pay rent, it would hardly cover the rising cost of food, electricity, gas and so on. They represent the poorest of the 99%.

So, while the Liberals under Dalton McGuinty try to penalise the poor and the unfortunate, whom Tim Hudak’s Tories are probably itching to put the boot in as well, rich corporate executives and their wholly-owned political allies reap the benefit of taxpayer-funded parties (ie ‘entertainment allowances’). That is, the 1% get to party and we get the bill!

And poor people, who are trying to exist on incomes that are below subsistence in a first-world city (and provincial capital), Toronto, and have those meagre incomes cut even more, there is nothing forthcoming.

My modest proposal is that these ‘entertainment’ expenses that big business executives claim (at taxpayers’ expense) should be cut by 50% (as a starting point) and turned over to those most in need: the poor, the homeless, the unemployed (whose jobs have been shipped overseas), as well as putting it towards cutting student debt and funding daycare and long-term daycare. (I would also propose that this would not include small businesses and the self-employed under a certain level of turnover.)

Since the provincial election on 6 October 2011, where the Liberals were returned with a minority (53 seats), can we expect any change for those most in need? Although the Tories hold 37 seats, the New Democratic Party (NDP) holds 17. The anti-democratic rhetoric of both federal and provincial Tories has made McGuinty ‘nervous’ about anything that can be called a ‘coalition’ and so bends the way of Hudak and Harper.

This is unfortunate as the bankrupt model of neoliberalism continues to act as a ‘Robin Hood’ in reverse – putting money into the hands of those who need it least: the 1%. That is why today 15 October 2011 some of the 99% have awaken and taken to the streets of more than 950 cities around the world in over 80 countries.

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Filed under Corporate Welfare, Corruption, Cutbacks, Democracy, Economics, Elections, Politics, Poverty, Uncategorized, Wages, Welfare, Youth