poverty as a product of social relations

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“In the humanitarian view, poverty is a quantitative problem, not the product of social relations. Although development work seeks to attack the enduring, “root causes” of poverty, these causes are assumed to be primarily material. Poor people, the story goes, are poor because they lack various things: money, education, credit, agricultural inputs, decent housing, etc. The purpose of development is to transfer the resources, skills and technology necessary for the poor to live poverty-free in a “sustainable” way, i.e. without a continuous flow of outside resources.”

This is a paragraph from Paved with Good Intentions, by Nikolas Barry-Shaw and Dru Oja Jay. I’m just starting reading the book so I can’t say much about it, but I wanted to pause and just comment about that first line, and the implication that poverty could be seen instead as the product of social relations.

The line reminds me of a book about the 1885 rebellion and how the Hudson’s Bay Company and Canadian government liked the idea of having a pool of subsistence farmers who would be readily available to hire for hauling during the hauling season but whom they would not have to support during the off season. Deliberate impoverishment meant to keep a ready supply of workers for part time work.

It is easy to think about the purposeful creation of an impoverished class taking place over 125 years ago. It is harder to think about it happening today. But I’m sure it is happening in many ways and many places. One of the examples I can think of in Canada has to do with our temporary foreign workers program.

Canada is opening up its borders to more temporary foreign workers. Even fast food restaurants like the iconic Tim Horton’s is employing temporary foreign workers, claiming that there are not enough Canadians willing to fill their vacancies. Perhaps they need to pay more? Offer more stable employment? Instead the companies hire temporary foreign  employees, thus keeping the wages low. At the same time they can and often do mistreat their employees further, sometimes insisting that their employees pay them rent for crowded housing and threaten to withhold their passports. To top this off, Ottawa has said its okay for foreign workers to be paid up to 15% less than comparable Canadian workers. Abuses of the foreign worker’s program isn’t limited to low-income jobs either, as one mine in B.C. decided that speaking Mandarin would be a job requirement for working there, so that they could claim to the government that there were not qualified miners and bring in temporary foreign workers – a move some unions are fighting.

I am not against immigration. I am very in favor of immigration but I believe that it should go like this: we open our borders, allow more people to move in and grant them the same rights as other Canadians. The Canadian temporary foreign worker’s program does not do this. It amounts to legislated discrimination and it isn’t good for Canadians or many of the foreigners who apply to the program.

There are other ways in which poverty is the product of social relations. I don’t know enough to give a good summary. I know I’ve been hearing more and more stories about people who are forced to swear confidentiality agreements with employers about what wage they are paid and with landlords about their rent or adjustments to their rent. I think of the social agencies which are being made to keep quiet about the ways in which government policies increase poverty, for fear that they will lose what funding they do have. There are power issues. They are control issues. People are unable to work together to try to stand up for their rights because they’re scared of losing what they have. There are problems within Canada…. beautiful, snow-covered Canada…. as well as the rest of the world probably.

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