Poverty's Problem is Division, Not Addition

Written by: Glen Pearson

In its own way, the London Food Bank’s fall food drive turned out to be a remarkable initiative. With donations up significantly over last year’s effort, it was tempting to think that citizens were in a more generous mood than last year. It’s true, they were, but the real story was what it was that put them in such a mood.

While totals donated to food drives tend to decline over the years, yearly givings go up as citizens increasingly take advantage of dropping off their donations at grocery stores across the city. Food drives often have to compete with other interests when it comes to capturing media attention, but this Thanksgiving it was these other avenues that created the context for a terrific food drive.

Over the summer and into the fall, the Poverty Over London social media campaign has relentlessly reminded the community of poverty’s grip in our midst by putting out posts full of data and the personal stories of those fighting to make ends meet. It has been a remarkable campaign that has subtly entered into the community conversation because of its consistent presence online.

The opposite held true for the string of London Free Press stories by local reporter Jennifer O’Brien - articles that ran over the course of a couple of weeks and directly confronted Londoners. They didn’t settle comfortably into the background but brought the tragedy of poverty directly to the attention of readers. Written in a way that spoke directly to the situation, they were nevertheless drew the community into the personal stories that filled the columns.

And then there was the launch of the London Community Foundation’s Vital Signs report. These come out every two years and help to define the stark challenges confronting the city when it comes to helping those on the margins. For the next two years the foundation's focus will be on the gaps that persistently plague mental health services in the community. A big part of the report talks about the link between mental illness and poverty. Statistics were released showing that in cities across the country, a range between 23% and 67% of those who were homeless report struggling with mental illness. And on any given week, at least 500,000 employed Canadians are unable to work due to mental health problems. For such struggling individuals, poverty is a constant companion.

All this was transpiring as the London Food Bank worked through its ten-day drive. In effect, these efforts provided a context, a broader awareness, of poverty’s hold on our city. It was the confluence of all these efforts, informing Londoners all at the same time, which made the London Food Bank’s effort so successful. In previous years, the food drive often happened in isolation, fighting, as it often did, against bad weather, poor coverage, or the occasional election. But this year it all came together. Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues, and layers, and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community responded by upping its game.

Often, community agencies focus their efforts on singular efforts to raise their totals of funds and resources. Generous citizens, businesses, and organizations respond, but the overall effort is diversified to the degree that the many complexities of poverty rarely appear in the same events. Citizens respond to homelessness, hunger, mental illness, addictions, violence against women, and many other dimensions that make up the depth of poverty, but which rarely get presented as a complete picture.

Despite the fact that all these efforts occurred at the same time, each enforced the other, providing depth and context, presenting the face of poverty in different hues and shades. The sum total became far greater than all the parts and the community upped its game.

All too often we believe poverty’s solutions require more: more money, more housing, more understanding, more empathy, more food, more financing. All of this is true, but the greatest obstacle to defeating poverty is the various divisions in every community that all too often fail to come together in a universal effort to redefine a city, a province, a country. That means combining everything from the non-profit to the start-up sector, the Chamber of Commerce to the social agencies, the media to the hospital and educational institutions. For that to happen, however, it will take citizens demanding better of their institutions and themselves.

The recent food drive showed just how motivated citizens can become when they are stimulated and educated on multiple levels. As long as sectors manage poverty instead of coming together and defeating it, the story will continue to be the same. When they are combined, however, even to a certain degree, as they did last week in London, Ontario, and we discover that within our own generation, poverty can be defeated.

Yet it will take more than collaboration or charitable actions from our communities. The problem ultimately lies in one of the most divided of all sectors: government. Next time we will take a look at how all three levels of government can shift the dynamic and add policy to the compassion of communities to make it work.

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