Hear­ing from the voices of poverty

“The tragedy is we have this is­sue and it’s not go­ing away.”

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JEFF MA­HONEY jma­honey@thes­pec.com 905-526-3306

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.


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