Can Jobs at Starbucks end World Poverty?

by C.A. L'Hirondelle 2006 - Victoria BC

"One of the most characteristic and ubiquitous features
of the world as experienced by oppressed people
is the double bind- - situations in which options
are reduced to a very few and all them
expose one to penalty, censure or deprivation.
For example, it is often a requirement
upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful."

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality, 1983

Stakeholders are people involved in an issue professionally, politically and those "affected" by policy. The old definition was the person who held the "stake" (an asset or money) during a bet or dispute until it was settled who had won the stake. Stakeholders are not yet masses of enraged poor people storming the streets waving pointy stakes in their hands screaming something about "no more hogging the wealth." But what a crowd it would be. According to 2004 Revenue Canada data there were 5 million people with incomes of 0-$10,000 (before tax); 5 million with $10-20,000, 3 million with $20-30,000, 3 million with $30-40,000, 2 million with $40-50,000, 1 million with $50-60,000, 1 million with $60-70,000, only 700,000 people with $70-80,000, 400,000 with $80-90,000, 260,000 with $90-100,000 and 800,000 with $100,000 and over.

If you use the dividing line of $60,000 per year income, there are 20 million below and 3 million above - a ratio where the rich and barely rich are outnumbered 6.6 to one. And this does not count all the low-income dependents or people who don't file taxes.

The reason there are not enraged "stakeholders" running through the streets is because most low-income people don't think of themselves as poor -- they just, for now, don't have enough money. I've been organizing, attending and speaking to low-income people since 1988, mostly as an unpaid organizer who was on welfare as a single mother myself and more recently as the coordinator of the Women's Economic Justice Project. It is not that low-income people don't have political power because they don't vote, it is that most low-income people believe their situation is temporary so do not identify as poor. Many blame themselves, believing if they could only start thinking like a 'winner' their money problems will be solved.

Thus, people develop an affinity for, and identify with, the "winners" and an aversion to being associated with 'the losers' who happen to make up the vast majority of people in the world. Those who control the media have painted a convincing portrait of society where poor people are a small minority and are poor because they are lazy, stupid, have bad habits and make bad choices. Who would want to identify with this? The dominant consensus is that poverty is an individual problem to be solved with individual solutions. Poor mothers have especially faced the wrath of efforts to end the "cycle of poverty." As Kathy Pollit wrote in 1994, "All agree that unwed mothers, particularly teenagers and, to a lesser extent, divorced moms, are the driving force behind poverty, crime and a host of other ills."

This is echoed in Fred McMahon's 2001 article "Poverty is voluntary, so let's end it: social programs like welfare merely subsidize bad choices" (Vancouver Sun and Victoria Times Colonist, August 9, 2001). McMahon's article went on to say: "End welfare. Reinstitute poorhouses and homes for unwed mothers."

McMahon is with the 'free market' think tank The Fraser Institute which, contrary to it's mandate, gets its 8 million dollar annual budget (2005) from begging for tax-deductible charity donations. Countless self-help books and programs also attest to the idea that poverty is the fault of the individual and can be fixed when the individual is fixed. So does the oft heard "I really want to work" which is sort of like kicking your own ass, the ass of other poor people and the ass of the planet since our hard work is killing the planet.

This refusal to identify poverty as a systemic problem plagues all anti-poverty meetings especially those where focus is on "stakeholders" from social service agencies with perhaps a few well-behaved poor people thrown for some authenticity. (Although, many low-income people will avoid these types of meetings because of purposeful or inadvertant poor-bashing.)

Even though poverty is about economic facts, people want to discuss poverty without stating on what information their opinion is based. What if engineers or architects operated on this principle? Would you drive across a bridge that was built on opinion and not evidence-based structural design?

When it comes to poverty not only is it "everything about poor people without poor people", it is "no economic facts please", we have moral concerns such as the "work ethic".

It is very common to hear, no matter what the unemployment rate, that people can just get a job at McDonald's. Another example of poor-bashing that I heard recently at an agency "stakeholders" meeting, was a thinly veiled inference that poor people are lazy, and need "training", because even people with developmental disabilities can get jobs cleaning the counters at Starbucks.

Never mind the fact that the economic system cannot create more jobs without a corresponding increase in consumption, which, as environmentalists have pointed out, will eventually destroy our planet. Should we then legislate mandatory consumption to create more jobs for coffee shops and fast food outlets? Never mind such things as the economy needing a certain level of unemployment to function (see Linda McQuaig's book "Shooting the Hippo".) Never mind the fact that dropping birth rates (less women wanting to make "bad choices") means less consumption (good for environment but bad for "jobs" and why we need a guaranteed livable income). Never mind the utterly ridiculous idea that poverty can be changed one person at a time since there are billions of people in the world who are poor or near poor. Does over half the world's population all have "the wrong attitude"?

It appears that none of the "stakeholders" representing professionals or politicians want to challenge the current economic dogma that jobs are the only solution to poverty. This idea is based the 500-year-old "work ethic." Yet the "work ethic" is not only totally sexist since unpaid care work - still mostly done by women-- is not recognized, it is totally eco-cidal since we are likely to use up every last resource trying to create living wage jobs for all. It is also in total conflict with technology since industries have the imperative of replacing people with machines whenever possible to cut "costs." They do not have any imperative to create jobs for humans.

The refusal to discuss or examine these facts, and the refusal to speak up for a guaranteed livable income, only strengthens the idea that poor people cause their own poverty. The political left wants to "fix" poor people, while the right wants to kick their lazy asses by using poverty as an "incentive" for them to take any kind of job, in any conditions, for any wages.

Poverty was created systematically through the enclosure of the commons, massive theft of indigenous people's land and resources and the massive theft of people's labour -- the bulk of which is women's unpaid work. Attempts at individual solutions to solve systemic problems will not work, but they do create a lot of jobs for agency "stakeholders."

Poverty is a life and death issue. Until people realize that, yes, I'm one of the billions of people in the world who are poor, or near-poor, and I'm going to stop blaming myself and other poor people for causing their own poverty, and I'm going to stop saying how hard I work, how much I want to work (at any job no matter what the cost to health or the environment), I'm going to stop ignoring economic and ecological facts, -- unless this happens, we will continue to have masses of people needlessly dying of poverty and we will continue to destroy the planet. On the other hand we could start demanding a guaranteed livable income.

We have enough resources in the world for everyone to live a decent life, we do not have enough resources to fuel the desires of delusional, genocidal, eco-cidal, "winners." And especially we don't have resources to use up on think tanks of all kinds who only exist due to being tax-deductible charities and whose sole purpose is to spread the message that poor people cause their own poverty.

First printed in the Sept/Oct 2006 Lower Island News


* 2004 Revenue Canada income data

* "Pollitt discusses and refutes the claim that women -- particularly single mothers -- cause poverty."

* "End Poverty by Ending Welfare As We Know It" by Fred McMahon in "Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Could be in the 21st Century", 2001, Toronto: John Wiley and Sons,

* "Shooting the Hippo", Linda McQuaig, Penguin, 1996

* World Poverty Facts:

* History of the Work Ethic:

* "Housework under the Market"

* Poverty Kills:

* Fraser Institute budget from Revenue Canada Charity Information Return,

* "Top Ten Reasons to be opposed to a Guaranteed Livable Income" by J.S. Larochelle
"The Fraser Institute: Non-profit, tax-deductible, charity?" by J.S. Larochelle

*"Trading forests for shopping malls"

* Women's Economic Justice Project

* "Socioeconomic Democracy" by Robley E. George:

* "The World's Wasted Wealth" by J.W. Smith

* "Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America" by Giles Slade, 2006