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Jamie Swift, Brice Balmer and Mira Dineen, Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins.

Jamie Swift, Brice Balmer and Mira Dineen, Persistent Poverty: Voices from the Margins (Toronto: Between the Lines 2010)

PERSISTENT POVERTY: Voices from the Margins presents the reader with a prime example of the delicate balance between scholarship and activism and the ways in which academic scholarship can challenge traditional ways of investigating and reporting. Methodologically this work is valuable for minimizing researcher-researched power imbalances. It allows for a sharing and collaboration of knowledge between the "researchers" and the "community" or the "researchers" and "researching assistants." This collaboration ultimately produces a work much more rich in qualitative knowledge and understanding, and allows for the reader to identify the ways in which her/ his lire is affected by poverty. This book is extremely important in situating the poverty that occurs "out there" and "outside of us" directly within our lives and our experiences with fellow Canadians. As stated by Dave Bindi, quoted in this text, "when you live in a big city, homeless people start to become like pigeons ... because they're so ubiquitous, they seem part of the city's wallpaper, which the citizenry largely moves past, rarely pausing to consider how near we are to their condition." (15) Jamie Swift, Mira Dineen and the dedicated folks at the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) contribute to the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse of poverty that, more than ever, is desperately needed in Ontario.

Jamie Swift's nuanced historical political-economic analysis and the reflexivity of the people he worked with maintain a balance to be appreciated, one that all researchers in the social sciences should strive to achieve. The methodology appears to be a morphing Community-Based Research methods, where collaboration between the investigator and the community organization--in this case, ISARC--occurs to produce a more rounded and grounded knowledge. It is also important to recognize the extremely important work ISARC engaged in by collecting the data for the 2010 social audit. In a country where less and less attention is paid to understanding and improving the social welfare of Canadians, it is important that documents and research like this continue to exist in order to counter Canadians' dominant understandings of poverty with not only quantitative but also qualitative data. With little popular resistance to the government's recent slashing of funding for critical poverty organizations like Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, it is clear that not only policy needs to be changed, but also our communities' understandings of it. As such this study provides the Canadian public, but also those interested in social policy, with a way of understanding the ways in which poverty has been actively maintained by our governments through intentional privileging of business and private interests. As the authors argue, "Two decades of stripping back income supports and putting more emphasis on market-based solutions repurposed the role of the state and left ordinary Canadians, suddenly faced with the most brutal recession since the Second World War, more exposed to the economic risks associated with joblessness than at any time since those earlier years." (21)

In short, the statistics provided, for example that Canadian food banks serve more than 700,000 Canadians/month (77), combined with statements like "I thought that garbage-picking was only needed in the Philippines, Africa or other third world countries" (76) contribute to the destruction of the myth that Canada is a resource-rich nation, a "first-world" nation.

The authors have collaborated with their colleagues to produce a piece of work that highlights the systemic and unrelenting economic violence imposed on those sectors "left behind" by Canadian social policy. The study does an excellent job of demystifying and deindividualizing constructions of poverty in Ontario, which, as the authors rightly point out, underpin the very hegemonic understandings of poverty that were constructed during the neo-liberal common sense revolution. Welfare bashing and criminalization of poverty are all direct results of the ways in which our understandings of a collective well-being were dismantled, justifying the slashing of public services (particularly during the Harris regime) and the deconstruction of the welfare state.

Beyond identifying the systematic constraints that restrain and reproduce poverty, the authors provide countless examples of the ways in which people experience those structural impediments. In particular, the authors identify the ways in which those living in poverty, particularly women (who more frequently occupy levels of poverty), feel and experience poverty in their daily lives. The most powerful sections of the book are those allotted to testimonials, which, more than anything, elicit feelings of anger, frustration, and despair, feelings clearly expressed by those sharing their experiences. For example, a mother in North Bay reveals the difficult but necessary decisions she is forced to make on a daily basis to care for her children. She claims, "If my husband and I want our kids to eat healthy ... I have to give up my heart medicine, stomach medication, and migraine medication, and I do it because our kids come first." (80) Stories like these are common throughout the book, which not only gives poverty a "human face" but also supports the statistics provided and complicates our understandings of poverty beyond simply "welfare." These stories revealed the ways in which services beyond social assistance are critical to one's experience of poverty and one's emergence from it. Accessible and affordable transportation, healthy and affordable food, job opportunities, and sufficient funding for public service workers all figured into the narrators' daily experiences with "the system," a system which often left them feeling left behind, victimized, or guilty.

But beyond eliciting feelings of frustration or anger for the reader, and beyond portraying these people as victims, the book also provides the reader with a sense of the unrelenting agency and will of those experiencing what appear as insurmountable barriers to their survival. The book provides us with examples of the energy required to continue looking for work when you live away from centres of work and there is no public transit or money for it. It provides us of examples of just how inaccessible our public services are. It provides us with countless examples of the barriers assembled in order to ensure that there is a healthy supply of poverty, and thus people forced to "choose" to work for less, and longer, in order to meet their basic necessities, or even not meet them at all.

Although the authors do address poverty and trace its exacerbation to neoliberalism's roll-backs the book fails to provide a more radical alternative, that is to say an alternative that does not justify the continued existence of capitalism. For example, the tone throughout the book is that the solution to these problems is a quasi-reinstatement of the welfare policies of the past. There is the assumption that building a social democratic government like those in Scandinavia will allow for cushion and alleviate some of the extreme poverty we are facing in Ontario and in Canada at present. The authors make reference to the Scandinavian's governments' successes with unionization and nearly eliminating mortality rates and, as is common with most Canadian social policy research, the Scandinavian north is put on somewhat of a pedestal, a goal to be attained, a goal Canada once closely knew. For example, we could expand their analysis in particular ways to anticipate the criticism that naturally is made of work demanding more social investment: "Where do we get the money?" Fear of debt and national debt accumulation was strategically planted with the Mulroney government and is continuously re-enforced within all of the current political and opposition parties.

Firstly, the political-economic analysis lacking in, or which could be added to, this work is the question of natural resource ownership. It is no secret that national management of strategic resources the Canadian government once owned has been sold off to foreign interests. It is also commonly known that our ownership of Canadian oil reserves is minimal which, when combined with neo-liberal offloading to the provinces, leaves Canadians fighting for the scraps of some of the largest oil reserves in the world. Nationalization is not the ultimate goal of a politic that tends to adequately redistribute wealth, but it is one that is certainly important now, in terms of regional fragmentation, in order to not only re-unite Canadians, but also enable a richening of our public services, which are in desperate need of national investment.

Second, Canadians need to speak out about the priorities of the Harper government. Despite the debt-fear that they are creating, their economic priorities are securitized. That is to say, there is massive federal investment going into military and prison spending. Instead of dealing with poverty as a systemic issue that can be rehabilitated and eliminated by making other aspects of one's life livable, poverty is (1) criminalized or (2) taken advantage of by sending to fight in foreign countries young Canadians who are either drowning in university debt or who jump at the opportunity to have a decently paid job with benefits and pension, one of the few existing today.

Although the strategies the authors provide for a more social democratic welfare state may be effective in the short term and are very important for the immediate experiences of those presently living in poverty, the problem with these solutions is that they enable the continued existence of capitalism, which necessarily requires poverty and exploitation for its survival. Ideally what I would have liked to see from the authors is more short-term and long-term goal structure regarding policy. The long-term "how we want to live discourse," which is "we want to live better," was lacking here. The book is missing ways of imagining how Canada could emerge as a nation that truly lives up to the reputation of the people it houses.

Overall, this work is an extremely important example of the kinds of academic work Canadian scholars should be producing in order to make their work accessible and readable, and thus effective for the Canadian public at large.


Carleton University
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Author:Francescone, Kirsten
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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