Hearing from the voices of poverty
“The tragedy is we have this issue and it’s not going away.”
The report of the Hamilton Social Audit turns the voices of the city’s poor to good and powerful account.
It uses their personal, often harrowing accounts of life without much (or anything) in their accounts to spur accountability — and ultimately action — on the issue of poverty.
After all, audits are about accounting, right? This one’s about accounting not for pennies, which, as the saying goes, will take care of themselves but for people who often can’t.
First, the bad news. The poverty picture in Hamilton, indeed in most of the Ontario cities where similar audits were done, has not improved, the audit notes. For most of the 21st century, about 19 per cent of Hamilton residents have lived in poverty, the audit says, while 22 per cent of city children are poor.
“The tragedy is that we have this issue (poverty) and it’s not going away and, if anything, it’s getting more serious,” says Father Con O’Mahoney, vicar of education of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hamilton.
He was one of several community and interfaith leaders who were called together not to tell or preach or advise but, simply, to listen. And listen they did. To 29 Hamiltonians, a real cross-section, who are living in poverty and agreed to talk, to share the details of their experience on a daily basis. As the report notes, they each received a $30 grocery card for their trouble. And as one participant observed, “That people will sell their privacy for a $30 grocery card speaks to a big problem.”
Of course, it was not the only inducement. It was a chance to share what so often no one wants (but everyone needs) to hear.
Listening was so powerful, says O’Mahoney. “I was exhausted; I was confused, angry; I was laughing and crying.”
Reading the report produces perhaps a small flavour of what he felt. It is moving. Framing the audit, entitled “Give Us A Chance To Succeed,” around these personal stories is a brilliant conception. It brings poverty home. Having no dental health benefits, having to balance food against medication, having to weigh that an improvement in income can mean a child-benefit clawback.
“A hiccup on the way can create a tailspin and how difficult to pull out of that tailspin,” says Sarah Guinta, co-ordinator of justice and peace office, Catholic Diocese of Hamilton.
In the report, one of the listeners, Mohawk College journalism academic co-ordinator Sue Prestedge, captures the impact of the process: “I thought as a journalist I knew what poverty looked like. I was wrong. As part of the Social Audit on poverty, I saw some of those suffering in poverty but hidden from public view.”
O’Mahoney says what struck him as much as anything was how entirely “the system wears you down.” And how vulnerable people are and how easily poverty can happen.
“One single mother, very well-educated, a good communicator, through the legal system found herself and her son in poverty, with literally nothing.”
The audit features good news, too, says Guinta. There’s empowerment in voice, and a galvanizing pressure to act and network. Already Hamilton Bishop Douglas Crosby and Anglican Bishop of Niagara Michael Bird have teamed up to send op ed pieces to The Spectator advocating for living wage.
The audit will be addressed at a special event Wednesday night.
I thought as a journalist I knew what poverty looked like. I was wrong.
SUE PRESTEDGE MEMBER OF SOCIAL AUDIT ON POVERTY