In times of unprecedented globalization and immediate access to international news, events around the globe have become a significant aspect of daily reality for most of us. We often find the destructive acts of nature, economic recessions, and ongoing conflicts that we witness making their way into dinnertime conversation, but little else. However, for some (citizens, institutions, and governments), these events fuel efforts towards poverty alleviation.
In Canada, we have CIDA, the Canadian International Development Agency, to support those who struggle elsewhere, and our Australian and American counterparts have AusAID and USAID, respectively. The mission of CIDA is to “lead Canada’s international effort to help people living in poverty”, and according to its website, CIDA does this through its aid effectiveness agenda which focuses efforts along three theme priorities, namely: “increasing food security, securing the future of children and youth, and stimulating sustainable economic growth.” Likewise, AusAID and USAID also prioritize poverty alleviation, and economic growth is also among the primary commitments of these organizations.
Poverty close to home
Of course there is poverty within Canada as well; in fact according to a recent book called Child Poverty in Canada by Patrizia Albanese, we remain “among the least successful at addressing child poverty among modern, industrialized nations” (p. xiv). Even though we committed in 1989 to eliminate child poverty nationally, rates actually increased in the ensuing decade, and it wasn’t until 2007 that they finally dropped to the 12% they had been in 1989. While we celebrated this ‘success’ in 2007, Albanese reminds us that 18 years prior it had been “cause for alarm and shame” (p. 107).
Perhaps taking a look at how we address poverty at home can shed some light on our international initiatives, and their prospects. If we can learn what took place during those years in which child poverty increased in Canada — the same years during which economic growth also increased — we may rethink our approach to international aid in relation to poverty alleviation.
Beyond causal explanations of poverty
Albanese is careful not to simplify such a complex social issue as poverty. She dedicates a great deal of time and attention to family, neighbourhood, and community factors, and attends to matters of gender inequity, racism, disability, age, and geographic and language barriers (which are all indeed significant in complex ways). However, she reminds us that focusing our attention in these areas can lead us to “forget the wider social, political (public policy), and economic factors that help to create and maintain the low-income status quo” (p. 56).
It is to these factors that I will turn for the remainder of this discussion. My reason for focusing on these economic and political factors is not because they are more important. I am focusing here because I think we will find that in light of Albanese’s research, ‘economic growth’ as a ‘ priority theme’ for international aid will cease to make sense. Fortunately, Albanese does not leave us without alternatives. Drawing from an array of international examples and from Quebec’s precedent-setting child-care initiatives, she demonstrates that there are much more hopeful, sustainable, and pragmatic possibilities already in play, thus demonstrating the potential of more egalitarian policies.
But first, a brief note: Why refer to child poverty, and not family poverty or poverty in general? It is clear that children are not impoverished in isolation; their poverty is connected to the poverty of those who care for them. On the one hand, this shift has been a strategic and successful move on the part of anti-poverty advocates; centering child poverty has helped to keep poverty on the agenda in a political climate that is more likely to blame individual adults for their own hardships.
At the same time, state policy discourses have drastically shifted from referencing family poverty to child poverty. Perhaps not surprisingly, “the shift in discourse has de-gendering and individualizing effects on family poverty” (p. 3), contributing to the view of poverty as a matter of ‘charity’ rather than a social justice issue. This move towards charity is outlined in great detail by Shereen Ismael in her book Child poverty and the Canadian Welfare State: From Entitlement to Charity. But I digress …
Poverty in political context
Both Albanese and Ismael track the ideological changes in Canadian governance in relation to child poverty rates. As Ismael describes it, we have transitioned from a welfare state to our current residual state, which explicitly promotes an ethic of liberal individualism. She links this transition with such moves as: capitalism, emphasis on child development (which individualizes child poverty), and the downgrading from federal to provincial jurisdiction of matters of social policy. All of these shifts have led to a current situation in which child poverty has been normalized and as a result, is not decreasing despite increasing national and provincial economic prosperity. She notes that “in the welfare state, increases in federal expenditures precipitated declines in child poverty; under the residual state, increases in federal expenditures accompany increases in child poverty” (p. 59).
Albanese, although using slightly different language, observes similar shifts and notes that both Canada and the US are among the ‘less generous’ of the affluent nations. Within societies such as ours which have adopted neo-liberal policies, there is an assumption that the state will step in if citizens are in dire need, but will otherwise leave individuals to makes social welfare decisions themselves. She notes that “the mixture of Canadian policies … assume and reflect the perspective that a main cause of poverty is the individual and his or her personal choices and actions” (p. 103).
What else can we do?
It is not necessarily how much money governments spend, but how they spend it, reminds Albanese. While economic prosperity is comparable between the EU and Canada, for instance, rates of child poverty are much lower in the EU than in Canada. Furthermore, it has been during the periods of our most accelerated growth that the gap between rich and poor has grown the most in this country (with both the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer). Thus, the argument that we need to grow economically (and help others do the same) in order to bring people out of poverty simply doesn’t follow.
Looking to Western Europe, however, we can see that there are realistic approaches to alleviating poverty, and that doing so means prioritizing people, not markets. According to Albanese, social democratic regimes — such as can be found among the EU — are more likely to
support programs promoting the material, educational, emotional, and physical well-being of all its citizens — to prevent poverty … This is done through the implementation of generous parental or maternity leaves, paid health and family related leaves, employment supports, accessible child care programs, national housing strategies, etc. (p. 104–105)
A significant component of social democratic state interventions is that they are more likely to provide universal measures (such as higher minimum wages, and those listed above), rather than targeting poor families. Universal supports are far more effective in a) preventing poverty from becoming an issue for families and b) enabling them to ‘exit’ impoverished situations more readily. Targeted programs, on the other hand, which focus resources only on those ‘in need’ often serve to trap families in situations of dependency because it is difficult for them to access (and sustain) supports unless they are destitute.
In 2005, Canada, Australia, and America were among the bottom third of 26 developed countries compared in terms of child poverty rates. Given our dismal domestic track records when it comes to poverty, are we really in positions to provide recommendations and aid on an international level?
It could be argued that given our relative affluence and privilege, it is our responsibility to engage in matters of social justice, whether within our borders or beyond them — and I agree. But is it ethical to be informing our interventions based on what we are doing domestically (but we know isn’t working)? In this sense, how we engage with these matters is itself a matter of social justice.
For instance, rather than focusing on ‘economic growth’ in our international initiatives, might we instead consider Albanese’s observation that it is not simply how much is spent, but how governments distribute their resources that contributes to lower rates of child poverty? The recommendations she makes, several of which are listed above, draw from many successes around the world, as well as recent ones in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador. Given that these are not the most affluent provinces in Canada (and that British Columbia, which is growing economically, has the highest rates of child poverty in Canada), perhaps we should take heed: poverty alleviation does not rest on economic growth.
Drawing from the vast body of evidence as to what is and is not effective regarding poverty alleviation, we can see that insisting on prioritizing growth in efforts to alleviate poverty (at home or abroad) is not only misleading, it may continue to move us farther from our stated aims.