Wednesday, September 07, 2011

How an insular society views social equity

I've been thinking about how our country has changed over the past few decades and I think I may have stumbled upon a fundamental truth about our current reality in Canada. The reason the political right has succeeded in devaluing the social safety net and the traditional Canadian values of social justice is because of how our society has changed. My theory is that we've become so insulated from the realities of our neighbours as to become convinced that how we're doing is more important than how everyone else is doing.

Part of my belief may have to do with the environment I grew up in. We lived in a small bedroom community north of Montreal, population about 10,000. We seemed much more aware of the people and families around us. We knew who was doing OK and who was not doing OK, both emotionally and financially. Not only did we know the disposition of those around us, more importantly we knew why they were in that situation. We knew that family 'A' were destitute and that it was because the father got laid off after 25 years of loyal service to a company. We knew that family 'B' were in the position they were in simply because they weren't taking any steps to improve their lot in life. We knew that family 'C' were in a bit of a rut at the moment, but that a subtle change in circumstances - like a helping hand, would find them right back in the groove again.

This town had a non-profit organization called The Emergency Centre. It was like a thrift store that took in donations from those with items and food (and money) to spare, to be distributed to those less fortunate families. But unlike the thrift store of today, this centre didn't sell the donations, they gave them away to those in need. Even better, the members of the centre knew the people of the community so well that when something like a baby stroller was donated, they almost immediately knew which families in town could use the stroller and contacted them right away. There was a social network in existence where we all knew who the needy were and as a result were able to respond to those needs promptly when we could. The food that was collected by the centre was distributed to the families everyone knew were in desperate need of some assistance. This changed their lives in ways you cannot imagine. I know because my mother was a recipient of a few food baskets from this organization in her time of need.

I believe that it was this sense of familiarity that made the concept of the social safety net a part of our societal fabric. Nobody complained that there were too many free-loaders on EI or welfare or mother's allowance. I think this was because there was less of a stereotype in existence that those using the safety net were lazy, selfish people. We knew the situation and were less likely to label the users of the safety network as people who wasted our tax dollars. Not only that, but because we were more friendly and familiar with our neighbours and more interested in the well being of the rest of society, the realities of those around us were in our face and we dealt with them through our compassion toward our fellow citizens.

Fast forward to today. We live in a much more insulated society. Very few people know their neighbours and if we do, we are much less likely to know how those neighbours are actually doing. As a result, we have shielded ourselves from the harsh realities that exist and why those realities exist in the first place. If I were to round up the people in your neighbourhood or from random neighbourhoods in your city or town and stand them in front of you, I'd be amazed if you could identify any of their situations, how they got to this place in their lives, what a typical day is like for them and how difficult it is to get through the week with their sanity and their dignity intact.

Yet many of us have the gall to deride people using the social safety net as lazy loafers who abuse the system and waste our tax dollars. It doesn't help that the only news stories we hear about users of the safety net are the abusers, not the success stories or the real stories about the harsh reality of being poor in a rich country with a (relatively speaking) high standard of living.

So before anyone takes another stab at the wasteful social safety net that could use with a little more financial trimming, or applauding the introduction of a two-tier health system that would require a fee for preferential treatment, or any other measure that simply helps those of us that are doing OK in the world at the expense of those that are barely scraping by, I hope you take the time to figure out how your modern solutions would affect those less fortunate individuals and try to put yourself in their place.

I would rather live in a country where I know that if for some unknown reason, I found myself in a precarious financial situation, that my fellow citizens and the government that serves us would be there for me in my time of need. I don't think we're going to get there until we open our eyes and look at the realities that surround us. It will help us be much more grateful for what we have and a little bit more compassionate about those who have much less.

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