Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Adaptation

On Adaptation

I am not ashamed to admit that I am living in poverty, so there it is; I am. It is likely partially my own fault for not preparing for change properly. Other than that, I feel little responsibility for ending up where I am on the economic scale. I would like to discuss what living in poverty means to me and where my descent has taken me.
While I do not have any money, I feel that I am not poor. I know there are many who are much poorer than I am in spite of the fact that month-to-month I have no disposable income and negative discretionary income. I believe that poor is a state of mind rather than an economic status. While I am being supported by the social assistance regime, I refuse to let the system diminish my pride and thus render me truly poor.
While being monetarily poor and poverty are important topics of discussion, I would rather talk about what poverty has done to me as an individual. I would also like to address one method to actually eliminate poverty rather than treating the symptoms.
The human race is at the top of the food chain not because of our strength but because we have learned to adapt more successfully than other creatures. It seems the lower you are on the economic ladder, the better you become at adapting. Those living in poverty and especially the homeless are true masters of adaptation.
A few of the adaptations I have made on my spiral of descent into poverty:
I have adapted from earning a six figure salary to having an income something over $7,000 per year.
I have adapted from having hundreds of friends that I saw on a regular basis to having a few friends that I see infrequently.
I have adapted from eating in the finest restaurants to eating at the Salvation Army and Out of the Cold (more on that later).
I have adapted from driving wherever I had to go to walking everywhere unless it is a week where I am fortunate enough to have a bus ticket.
I have adapted from HAVING places to go to having limited places that I can afford to go.
I have adapted from having a full pantry to using food banks on occasion.
I have adapted from paying less than 1/3 of my gross income for housing to paying 2/3 of my income for housing.

I have adapted to the reality that if you are over a given age and definitely over 60, you will not be offered any job.
The longer the economy continues on the course it is on, the more people there are that are being forced to make some of the same adaptations. It is a test to which nobody should be subjected.
I want to tell you the end result of the adaptations that I have had to make. The first thing that happens when you go from making six figures to falling into poverty is that all of those people that were 'friends' turn into acquaintances. It has been said that if you make five true friends in your life, you are indeed fortunate. Falling into poverty lets you know how many true friends that you have made in the course of your life. Even those 'true' friends become distant though. They want the best for you but you cannot afford to exist in the society that they still inhabit. So, you quickly find out that your economic status is likely the biggest determinant of who your friends and acquaintances are going to be. As you can imagine, depression quickly follows the realization that your former social safety net has disappeared and you must find people who will form your new milieu. You cannot imagine how difficult that can be when you are starting from a point of depression verging on desperation.
I was recently in to see a psychiatrist to determine whether I was clinically depressed or just run of the mill depressed. That is a topic for another discussion. I explained to her that my depression was a function of the lack of social inclusion. I can do without a lot of money but it is the things that money allows that I miss. One of her suggestions for overcoming that lack of social inclusion was to visit the Mental Health Centre because they have a lot of programs for just that sort of thing. I am not here to disparage the mentally ill or mentally handicapped but I wonder if they seriously think that would be an answer to the problem. I think that I might find it rewarding to volunteer my services there but to have any kind of high level discussion about anything over a beer and to enjoy the ambiance of where you are is not likely to occur. So ultimately, your coterie of friends quickly becomes other people with no money and nowhere to go other than the library and the employment centre.
I cannot speak for those that have lived in poverty all of their lives; there are many who could address that better than me. Regardless how you get there though, I believe that the end result is the same. It is a daily struggle with few, if any rewards. It also leaves you with a different mindset. At the end of each month, social assistance cheques are delivered and for a brief time, those who receive them are 'rich'. A friend of mine introduced me to the phrase “millionaire weekend”. That is the few days after social assistance cheques arrive and there is an apparent surplus of money. Most people who receive a regular pay cheque look at those on social assistance and wonder why they have a tendency to blow their money at the beginning of each month. They are not living with the pressures, the stigma and the grueling situation that poverty places on those who are compelled to live on 1/3 of what it would take to even be at the poverty line. Once a month, there is a feeling that you are a 'real' person and have the ability to do what 'real' people have the ability to do every day of the month. So they take their money and pretend that they are 'real' people and buy stuff they cannot afford and have a party or buy their drugs or whatever it is that they do to escape the existence they inhabit and pretend.
Eating with friends was a daily occurrence in my previous life. I seldom ate alone and if I did, it was because I chose to. When you are existing on social assistance, just eating can be a problem whether it be with friends or alone. I am lucky living in Hamilton because of the excellent Out of the Cold meals in the winter. If you are willing to walk all over the downtown core, you can receive at least one meal a day. The generosity of those running and supplying the meals is truly astonishing! On any given night they serve upwards of 200 people who otherwise may not eat that day. That program only runs November through March though so it is necessary to find other means of nourishment during the summer months. One can utilize food banks but even there you run into problems. You can only make one trip per month to a food bank and what you receive will not feed anyone for a month. What you are receiving is also not even marginally conducive to maintaining health. If you have a gluten allergy food banks are practically 100% useless. It is ludicrous to believe that you can actually shop at a grocery store for food. There just is not enough money to buy retail. I have to admit that I gave up on food banks. I am thankful for the Salvation Army. For $10 per month, you can get a meal ticket that will give you one meal a day all month. A better deal cannot be found! There is the issue of getting there though. I live a 30-40 minute walk one way to get there. Taking a bus on a daily basis is out of the question so in order to eat once a day, I walk over an hour to get there and back.
Fortunately, walking is not foreign to me. That is my primary source of transportation. If nothing else, my lower body and cardiovascular are likely in the best shape the have been in since I was a teen. It does make it difficult if I want to go anywhere outside the downtown core of the city though. Anything on the 'mountain' is practically inaccessible since there is no money for transportation. Consequently, despite all that Hamilton has to offer, I am restricted to free venues that are walking distance from downtown. Somewhat restricted in comparison to having subscriptions to Roy Thompson Hall and going to any venue without thinking about cost.
I started off by suggesting that I have made enormous adaptations in my lifestyle just to stay alive. In spite of the regime that delivers the minimal support that I do receive, I am grateful that I get something; it is better than far too many others in the world. It does astonish me that it costs more to deliver the paltry amount that I do get than the amount that I receive. That's right, it costs more to administer the money than what I receive. I want you to think about that for a moment. The surveillance model that the government has adopted to deliver social assistance leads to this outcome. Outcomes in Hamilton have shown that there is approximately three percent fraud occurring in the system. That is on par with any other system involving people. The Canada Revenue Agency assumes that approximately three percent will cheat on their taxes and audit that many returns every year. As you can imagine, their 'policing' costs are infinitesimal compared to the policing costs of Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. When people complain about the costs of social assistance, their thoughts immediately go to the people that are receiving the funds with no consideration that it is costing them more to administer that money than the end users are receiving. You and I know that there is much wrong with that scenario.
I am going to suggest that considering the adaptations that people receiving social assistance have to make that it would not be a great deal to ask the government to review the entire structure of the bureaucracy. It has been their habit to make band-aid solutions and adaptations rather than look at restructuring the entire system. There is an even better solution that has been talked about for over four decades. That is a guaranteed annual income.
What a guaranteed income would do would eliminate poverty immediately. You could do away with the grotesque costs of administering social assistance, do away with food banks, do away with the concept and administration of minimum wage and do away with much of what is euphemistically called the poverty pimps. For those of you not familiar with that term, they are people who make their living studying poverty, advising governments and other stakeholders how to deal with poverty, help those living in poverty and generally make their living from those living in poverty. You have all heard the acronyms for far too many groups like this and the entire poverty industry is enormous consuming commensurate amounts of taxpayer money. While those involved in that industry may be doing some good, I believe they could be far more productive working in other areas of social endeavour.
The initial cost of such a system would likely be rather high but there has been much study and many papers written that demonstrate that the costs would ultimately be less than the current system. The savings would obviously come from a much smaller bureaucracy. Poverty hides many costs that would also be lessened. As the Hamilton Spectator Code Red series pointed out all too graphically, people living in poverty have a life expectancy that can be up to 20 years shorter than someone living above the poverty line. It isn't like people in poverty just up and die one day either. There are a lot of physical and psychological problems that cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money before they have the good grace to die. Because of their destitute situation, many turn to crime; from petty shoplifting to drug distribution, robbery and murder. Even without looking at statistics, when you think of murders in Hamilton or any other major city, is your first thought that it is committed among the well-to-do or is your first thought that it is drug related or related to domestic violence committed on and by people living in poverty? The statistics will bear out your hunch.
By changing to a system of guaranteed income, business would also benefit. There would be more money in the economy. This will inevitably spur growth leading to more jobs and more productive jobs. It may spur the governments to spend more time goading industry to get off their 'dead' cash mountains and invest in the economy thus creating even more jobs. If market forces do not make companies pay enough to get people above the poverty line with wages, government would realize rather quickly that it is imperative to put pressure on industry to raise wages. It would almost seem self-evident that a rejuvenated economy would allow companies to spend more on their employees in order to keep them healthy and productive. The only down side would seem to be the initial cost. In this time of false austerity and worries about debt, that is a problem.
One look at history will tell us that banks and large corporations are the only ones that benefit from austerity measures. There is no upside for the economy, no upside for individuals who do not start in the top percentile of wealth, no upside for anyone other than banks who are allowed to scoop up more of the economy for pennies on the dollar due to forfeiture and the increased wealth that they accumulate from having their debts paid back with interest or forfeitures.
After World War II, there was no rush to close down the economies of the world to pay off debt accumulated during the war. There was an outpouring of cash from governments to spur the economies to move into a post-war mindset. I don't believe that any of the major countries disappeared from the face of the earth due to that spending. Rather, we saw a golden age come from that and the creation of a middle class that had not been seen prior to that and has certainly shrunk a great deal since because of bad government policy. A rejuvenated economy will quickly recover any money spent on changing a system from surveillance and punishment to a support and education model. As always, the trick is educating the great unwashed masses that is the electorate to point out what is best for THEM rather than what is best for industry.

Adapting is a human condition that will not change. As a society, we are going to have to make great adaptations to come to terms with the global society that is evolving. Widespread poverty is one of the inevitable outcomes of the changes to come. Addressing that issue is going to be a defining moment in our evolution as a nation and as a species.

Friday, October 12, 2012

On Bullying

Amanda Todd. The latest name in suicides as a result of bullying. There will be more. The grief and soul searching will again be poured out for the next victim. The unanswerable questions will again be asked. I am hopeful that some progress has been made and that ultimately we as a society will be able to eliminate the consequences of bullying.

While programs are being launched and anti-bullying propaganda is being perfected, I have yet to hear anything about attempting to find the root cause of the bullying and how to find the bullies before they start using it as an outlet for their own inadequacies.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Surprising Science of Motivation

I just watched this Ted talk by Mr. Dan Pink who is an author and former speech writer for Al Gore.  This is the second or third time that I have watched this talk and I find it quite amazing how I can watch something like this, take it all in and based on past experience know it to be true.  Then life intervenes and I forget all about what is so obvious at the time of viewing.  That may be a bit of senility showing up but I truly hope that is not the case.  I suspect that happens with most people when they are not actively involved in the field that a talk or seminar is evoking.

Mr. Pink's talk has to do with changing the entire premise that corporations utilize for having a healthy and happy workforce.  The carrot and stick approach is based in urban myth but seems to be the way corporations still function.  Unless the job is screwing two pieces of wood together, it is far better to allow the worker to do the job that needs doing without holding a sharp stick over him.  While the talk could be very prescient, success in turning around the current debacle of the industrial economies of the world must be addressed first by securing some semblance of security within that workforce.  Security is not engendered by more part-time jobs with no security and no benefits.  Further, in order to make Mr. Pink's findings relevant in today's environment, full-time jobs need to be created to allow the findings that this talk clearly demonstrates to even have a chance to be proven.  I cannot believe that any company would tell part-time employees to take part of their week and come up with something that would benefit the company or society.  They are too busy trying to figure out how they are going to pay the rent much less how to make the company that is forcing them into a slave-like position to get even richer.

There has been lots of talk about this period that we are in as being a jobless recovery.   Well, it isn't quite jobless but without even looking at statistics, I just know that there have been far more part-time jobs created than there have full-time jobs.  Why is that?  Because you don't pay benefits to part-time workers and it is easier to let them go if you choose to.  The premise that corporations must first serve the short-term goals of investors or stockholders is just plain wrong.  Corporations should be striving to be great in their field and that does not happen within a quarter or even a year.  It takes long range thinking and long range planning; two things that are sadly lacking in our leadership both politically and corporately.  Steve Jobs, may he rest in peace, had the right idea.  He took two companies that were on their backs and gasping their last breaths and boosted them both to the top of their respective fields of endeavour.  He had the foresight and patience to do it properly and the result of his management is obvious to all.  His motivation was not money.  He always strove to do the job right.  That did not involve a 9-5 proposition, it involved being able to do things properly in whatever time it took.

One sentence that Mr. Pink uttered during his talk was something to the affect that "Yes, you pay people and you pay them a fair and decent wage, then you get on with the business at hand.".  That concept of paying a fair and decent wage seems to have gone by the board to a great degree lately in business.  Dr. Amy Glasmeier and Pennsylvania State University have a Living Wage Calculator that is very indicative of where much has gone wrong in the United States.  The calculator takes it down to city level in terms of how much it costs and further shows how much sectors of the economy in that city, county and state are paid for their services.  It is telling that far too many sectors put in full time at a job and still do not make a living wage.  While I have not looked at each state, it is readily apparent that the minimum wage generally falls somewhere between poverty level and an actual living wage.  I would love to see something similar for Canada but have not found one yet.  Until such time as every political level that has influence on wages and corporations understand that they must pay their workers enough so that they can live, the current downward spiral of society will continue.  I don't know if the middle class must completely disappear before there is enough anger but it would seem that Occupy Wall Street is showing a great deal of the angst that exists in the United States.  The fact that the dissatisfaction is spreading to other cities, other countries and other continents is a very good indication that this is not a local phenomenon.  It will be interesting to watch the fallout over the next couple of years to see where all of this mishandling of former economic prosperity leads.  In the meantime, I guess that infamous tax on the poor, the lottery, remains as a vestigial hope for many of regaining some of their self-worth. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011


The spring uprising continues to baffle me.  Not the fact that it is happening but the fact that the 'rulers' of the countries that have gone down to defeat and the ones who are still clinging to power do not have the intelligence to change course.  Management of any situation demands that you know and understand what is happening to cause management of a situation to occur.  It seems that the leaders and former leaders had sufficient management skills to be able to coordinate and maintain a power structure.  Why is it that they lacked the management skills to be able to shift their thinking into a more humanitarian aspect rather than concentrating solely on letting the peasants eat cake ... or dung ... or nothing as the case may be.  I think that it is wonderful that the people have been able to express themselves strongly enough to overthrow the shackles of tyranny.  I also fear for the consequences.

When the former USSR toppled under its own weight, Russia went in a democratic direction.  As things have played out though, it seems that not only the leaders need to be educated but also 'the serfs'.  What experience did the common man in Russia have to be able to understand the nuances and responsibilities that accrue under democracy.  The answer is obviously, none!  The result is readily apparent with a new power structure having taken over from the old and democracy slowly being whittled away.  I fear the same will transpire under the new regimes in Tunisia and Libya.  Egypt at least has a history of attempted democracy and could go forward but again, it is going to take more than a year or two; it is going to take a generation or two.

My hope is that all of the democratic and soon-to-be democratic countries (and yes, that includes the United States of America) are able to educate their citizens and are blessed with leadership who understands that they need to lead, not coerce in order to build a better society for all of their citizens.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Interesting times

I've been wasting time this morning going around the net, checking tweets, news and being baffled generally.

The Middle East continues to astound.  I think that I need to do more reading on the whole area.  I find it hard to believe that all of this zeal has not been on the back burner for a long time and has just bubbled to the surface this year.  Is this yet another case where the entire news reporting system has been hijacked by government?  If so, I believe that it is time for the 'west' to stand up to their governments and do away with things like "Homeland Security" and all of the other 'need to know' basis organizations.  Transparency in all aspects of society would seem to be the best policy.  You only get hurt by lies.  We learn that as children.  Apparently, those in high office (be it the government, the military or large corporations) still have to finish maturing to understand that fact.

Mexico is another puzzle.  Such a wonderful people that have been reduced to peons by successive occupiers.  And now, they apparently are being kept in that role by their own oligarchists.  Yet more individuals who have to finish maturing so that they can properly tackle the forces of crime that so pervade too many lives in that wonderful country.

And then there is the USA!  The founding fathers thought they had it right when they made the government unworkable without cooperation.  Unfortunately, they did not foresee a system that could get so out of control that the populace would elect representatives with a mind set that is little better than middle school level.