OK, a little away from national defence and even national programmes, like health care, but something that Tony Clement said, back in December, is still rolling about in that big, empty space I call my mind, and I think it may be a bit of a test for Conservatives, perhaps even a little thought provoking for a few.
“Can Conservatives,” he asked, “have a distinctively conservative policy on poverty elimination?“
It, the whole subject of poverty – inequality – social programmes – etc, seems difficult for many Conservatives to discuss. Many liberals see us as, and, to be fair some of us act like …
… but many, many people with pretty sound conservative credentials do worry about social policy and how we, Conservatives, might deal with issues like poverty and inequality.
I do not even pretend to understand, much less have any answers to the big questions about “eliminating poverty” or addressing inequality, but I do, largely as a result of having lived for more than seventy years (and done a lot of that living and working, too, in five regions/continents), have a couple of ideas about what doesn’t work and, in that couple of cases, what just might help.
As another caveat: I fully understand that most social policies and most social programmes are provincial, often even municipal responsibilities, but everyone, social activists and poverty advocates, reasonable academics, mayors and city officials and provincial premiers and their officials call out to the federal government for money for social programmes and projects.
My thoughts are related to only two aspects of social policy:
- Subsidized, social or public housing; and
It seems to me that we have managed, by and large and all over the world, to get social housing wrong. We wanted this …
… but we ended up with endless city blocks of this …
… and the predictable outcome, one predicted, more than sixty years ago by many social scientists, was that we actually created ghettos in which we, mostly, warehouse the poor and disadvantaged and then leave them seethe in a dirty, sour, boiling broth of envy, anger and hopelessness.
Public housing is expensive to maintain in some part because many tenants do not have any real stake in their community. It can be a bit hard for anyone to take good care of someone else’s property; it is harder when you know that you are being marginalized by a society that doesn’t see much value in you and your family, nor in your “home.” The first rule for a successful social housing programme should be: no ghettos. Instead of row upon row and block after block of drab, rundown apartments that look like they belong in Moscow in the 1970s, good social housing projects need to be dispersed throughout their communities. No more of these, please …
… instead we need to see, most often, the same number of units spread across all these …
… so that those who need assistance are not ghettozied but, rather, benefit from being in established, middle class communities with decent access to schools and services and with the social attitudes towards work, education and property that middle class communities display.
Now, such a programme cannot be accomplished quickly, or cheaply. We, first, need to overturn 65 years of poorly implemented social housing, but, as Loa Tzu said …
… and Prime Minister Trudeau said he was going to fund some social housing projects from all those (growing, day-by-day) deficits he plans to run so, maybe, he could take a first, important step and say, “no money for more of the same old, socially destructive ghetto housing, federal money will be for converting some of those exiting ghettos to distributed housing projects only.”
Of course not all multi-unit social housing can or should be distributed. Some people, recovering addicts and maybe some seniors, for example, might benefit from being in ghettos with e.g. on-site social and medical support, but most people would be better off in distributed housing.
Would it be more expensive? Yes, for sure. But could there be concomitant, offsetting savings in e.g. maintenance and police services? Yes, that, too, I think. And there is another cost that is harder to quantify: the children who grow up in ghettos appear far, far more likely to be (or remain) burdens on society than to make positive contributions to it. Do we, Conservatives, really advocate forcing people into failure … that’s not my kind of Conservatism. We, Conservatives, ought not to be for equality of outcome ~ that’s just social engineering which we ought to know, by now, doesn’t work ~ but we ought to favour equality of opportunity and all the evidence I have seen suggests that social housing ghettos promotes inequality of opportunity and it is wasteful because we do not get the best out of the most people ~ sort of the same as my Second: principle of the greatest good for the greatest number.
Welfare is almost a red flag for some Conservative bulls.
Well, it is for me, too, but, largely, because I think it is an economically and socially wasteful programme that has as many bad (albeit unintended) consequences as good ones.
First: no one, certainly not me, says that we shouldn’t help those in need, but, it seems to me that too much of our welfare system seems, unintended again, I’m sure, to be aimed at creating long term dependence instead of helping people overcome short term difficulties.
Second: and once again, as with social housing, there is some role for the established system … what I propose will not suit everyone, maybe not even most people, but, then, neither does the current system.
Let’s consider Mary. Mary is a twenty-something single mother. She’s no an irresponsible person, not a drug addict, not an alcoholic, not a prostitute, just a young woman with poor learning skills. She’s a good person and a good mother, too, She would be a good worker if she could find the right job, but that’s hard because Mary is over on the left of this bell curve …
… so she doesn’t benefit from a wide range of “skill training” programmes, she like the people in the over half of that 16% of “poor performers,” is not going to become a dental hygienist or a meat cutter or even a call centre worker. All of those jobs are just a bit too difficult for Mary.
Mary, I’m told by a friend with some experience in the social services field, is an all too common client of the social welfare agencies.
Mary did look for jobs, and she was available for work, too, because, between her mother and a sister, she could arrange for reliable, trustworthy and affordable child care, she could even manage shift work, but, she discovered, many of the jobs that would suit her were already taken by foreign workers admitted to Canada under the temporary foreign worker programme because, employers said, there were not enough Canadians who wanted the jobs. Whao! you say, we put a cap on that Temporary Foreign Worker Programme just for folks like Mary, because we knew she wanted a job and we knew those guys were just exploiting those young ladies from the Philippines. Partly true: Mary does want a job, she would loved to have taken that fast food job, but … And those ladies from the Philippines were being paid as little as the law allowed but they were not being “exploited” except in the most literal sense of that word. They were happy to have those jobs and did not feel abused or mistreated or even disrespected (yes, I know that isn’t really a word).
“But,” I said … and here’s the catch for Mary: she gets a bit more than $1,000 per month in social assistance and she can get $250 more for child care if she gets a job, but the fast food job, which pays $1,700 per month for a full time worker is, in reality, only available, to start, as part time work, and that only pays about $1,000 a month after deductions. In other words, Mary, who really wants a job because she wants to get off the welfare treadmill, would lose a bit of real money each month if she goes to work … social assistance isn’t a free ticket to the good life. Mary struggles to just, barely get by on her $1,000+. She could not manage, not after paying a bit to her Mom or sister, who are both in the ‘working poor‘ category, for child care, on anything less than $1,250.
The answer, of course, is obvious: allow Mary to keep some of her welfare if she gets a job. Let’s say that welfare for a working single Mom, like Mary, who pays for child care, is $1,250. Mary takes the $1,000 job; she should get to “keep” let’s say $700 from welfare. Even when she gets full time work at about $20,000 a year ($1,650 a month) she should be allowed to keep, say, $425 per month, so that she has an annual income of about $25,000, which is still below StatsCan’s “low income cutoff,” but rewards her for being a responsible member of society rather than being a parasite.
It seems to me that rewarding those who want to work, who want to be productive is a good Conservative value while punishing those same people with bureaucratic obstacles which we must admit were, often, put in place to counter conservative claims that welfare is overly generous , is not something with which we should want to be associated.
I do not, I said up front, have any answers to the BIG questions. I’m not even sure I fully understand the big questions, but I do have a couple of smallish suggestions for a couple of aspects of our Canadian social safety net. My suggestions are not for a national Conservative platform because they deal with provincial and, mostly, local matters, but they are designed to get some Conservatives to talk in ways that help shed our (usually, but not always) unfair image as hard-hearted social Darwinists.