Sunday, February 19, 2012

Reducing poverty is a matter of justice

Charity or Justice?
In his book on spirituality, The Holy Longing, Father Ronald Rolheiser relates the following story. One day, some children spotted three bodies floating in the river that ran through their village. They ran to get help. Of the three bodies, one was dead, one was injured, and one was a healthy child. Everyday for years, three more bodies came floating down the river. The villagers buried the dead, nursed the injured, and found homes for the children. The villagers were proud of the systems they had established for dealing with the bodies. But, no one ever went up the river to find out what was happening.

Rolheiser was drawing a distinction between charity and social justice. While charity relieves the symptoms of a problem, social justice looks beyond the symptoms to the cause, and works for change. Social justice is an essential aspect of spirituality.

Not unlike the villagers in our story, Canada has put systems in place that are intended to address social problems, like poverty. While our politicians talk about poor Canadians, rarely do any make a trip up the river to experience the harsh reality of poverty.

Who are the poor?
Jagrup Brar, a Surrey, BC MLA, is a notable exception. Brar accepted the “Raise the Rates” challenge to live for one month on the BC welfare rate of $610. He did so this past January. 

During his month long experiment with poverty, Brar lived off about $4 per day, after deductions for basics like rent, buss pass, and phone. He was constantly hungry and fatigued. He lost 26 pounds. He had to make choices between purchasing toiletries and food. He said the experience changed him, making him a humbler, more compassionate person, committed to working for justice for the poor.

Brar’s experience challenges a common Canadian mindset about welfare recipients. The poor are not typically lazy individuals taking advantage of taxpayer dollars. The poor are working people who do not make a living wage. The poor are individuals affected by job loss, illness, disability, or, they have suffered a crippling accident. The poor are single mothers and their children who have fled from abusive situations. The poor are immigrant farm workers who lack the basic rights and benefits that we have come to expect in Canada. The poor are refugees from United Nations refugee camps whose sponsors have reneged on commitments to support them for a year. Poverty is a tapestry of individual stories, and is not defined by one group of people.

Claw back policies keep people poor
Brar discovered some problems with policy. Child support payments, which many mothers do not regularly receive, are deducted from welfare payments. Earnings from any type of work, even snow shoveling for a few bucks, are deducted.

Income from other sources does not improve the situation for people when welfare is clawed back. While social assistance was originally intended to provide short-term relief, claw back policies keep people poor, penalize the recipient for working, and encourage dishonesty.

A crippling discrepancy
“Raise the Rates” puts the Market Basket Measure (MBM) for metro-Vancouver at $1300 per month, but the welfare payment for an individual living in British Columbia is only $610 per month, of which $400 is deducted for rent. The MBM is a goods and services measure that takes into consideration the cost of living in different geographical areas, and is based on after tax income. The categories of the basket are food, shelter, clothing, footwear, transportation, and other goods and services, which includes a miscellany of things, from postage stamps to school supplies to newspaper subscriptions to entertainment.

Where there is such a grave discrepancy between the actual cost of living and the welfare allowance, is it any wonder that food banks, soup kitchens, and shelters have become permanent features of many communities?

The poor deserve justice
These services are examples of charity that caring citizens have established to assist the poor among us. Although these charitable endeavors are essential to promoting the dignity of the poor, the poor deserve more than charity. They deserve justice.

The three western provinces lack any kind of comprehensive strategy to reduce or prevent poverty. Justice calls for the development of measurable strategies to reduce poverty, and to prevent more people from falling into poverty.

Unlike Brar, who was able to return to his comfortable home after a four-week joust with poverty, 500,000 British Columbians are caught in poverty. Poverty is not going to go away, unless we develop the political and social will to create a more just society. Until then, the bodies will continue to float down the river.

Friday, February 3, 2012

On Love

Love is…
Love Heart Gift Box by Grant Cochrane

With Valentine’s Day peering around the corner, romance hovers in the air. Love is chocolates and flowers. Love is reserving a table at a favorite restaurant. Love is the many little expressions of affection that we bestow on those we love.    

A comic strip called “Love is…” became widely popular around the world in the 1970’s, and is still going strong. Each cartoon features the phrase “Love is…” above an illustration; the phrase is completed beneath.

The phrases are sometimes trite, sometimes amusing, and sometimes sweet. While the cartoon looks simplistic, its insights about relationships and the nature of love are often profound.

As we get ready to celebrate the romantic love associated with Valentine’s Day, let’s take a look at the lighthearted portrayal of love as captured in the “Love is…”comic strip. 

Some characteristics of loving relationships
“Love is… a slow dance together.” It takes time to develop a committed relationship. The initial phases of a relationship can be more like a vigorous jive than a stately waltz. Relationships grow and blossom when we gently hold one another through the various dances of life.

“Love is …losing the game but making a great match.” Sometimes we cannot have our own way. Even in the greatest love matches, there are disappointments and disagreements. Love overcomes the fractious moments, letting go of the insignificant to focus on the essentials.

Heart by Salvatore Vuono
“Love is …not trying to impose your ideas on others.” A loving relationship is based on mutual respect. We must not try to control or overshadow one another. Each person must have the freedom of their individuality, even as the couple grows together, becoming one in spirit.

“Love is … pulling her hair away from her eyes.” Good relationships challenge us to become the best we can be. Sometimes we are blinded by stubbornness; we are set in our ways and opinions. We need the other person to help us see with new vision. Acting with tenderness, the other person can help us widen our horizon when it begins to narrow.

“Love is…toasting the arrival of spring.” Relationships often settle into a comfortable routine. We may begin to take one another for granted. We nurture our relationship when we seek out little reasons to celebrate each other, the relationship, and life in general.

“Love is…cleaning the bathtub after you use it.” Undertaking an ordinary task that is outside our usual realm of responsibility can be an expression of love. On the flip side, saying thank-you for that clean bathtub is equally important. Thoughtfulness and consideration in little things goes a long way in nurturing harmony.

“Love is…letting him be the greedy one.” There is a give and take between each person’s needs and desires. Sometimes we have to put our selves last. Good relationships require self-giving and service from both people.

“Love is…saying you’re sorry” and “Love is…forgiving even if you are really angry.”
Admitting our mistakes is unpleasant. Forgiving when we are angry is really difficult. Love requires that we humble ourselves, and that we cultivate a generous spirit. Love demands that we ask for forgiveness, and that we extend forgiveness.

“Love is…contagious.” The illustration with this phrase shows the couple, holding hands, covered in a heart shaped rash. Loving relationships cannot be contained. Love is directed outwards, becoming a contagion for the good of others, and for the world.

A biblical vision 
Saint Paul penned one of the most frequently quoted “Love is…” passages. While Paul wrote the passage to a community plagued with division, pride, and selfishness, today the passage is often read at weddings, directed to a couple. The passage expresses the quality of relationship that the human heart longs for, and presents the ideal form of interaction between people.

From Paul’s “First Letter to the Corinthians,” we learn the attributes of love. Love is patient and kind. It delights in goodness. Love perseveres in times of trouble. Love is always hopeful. Love is not arrogant or rude. Love is not irritable or selfish. Love overcomes and outlasts all things.

A relationship rooted in the attributes of love is the greatest gift of all. This Valentine’s Day, as we enjoy the more material gifts of romantic love, let us treat our relationships with spouse, family and friends as a joyful dance of love rooted in patience, kindness and humility.

From the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians: 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Photo Credits:
Heart by Salvatore Vuono, courtesy of
Love Heart Gift Box with Ribbon by Grant Cochrane, courtesy of