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The special language of poor-bashing disguises the real causes of poverty, hurts and excludes people who are poor, cheapens the labour of people who have jobs, and takes the pressure off the rich. Swanson, a twenty-five year veteran of anti-poverty work, exposes the ideology of poor-bashing in a clear, forceful style. She examines how media "poornography" operates when reporters cover poverty stories. She also reveals how government and corporate clients use poor-bashing focus groups. To make the book even more useful Swanson includes key chapters on the history of poor-bashing.


The Politics of Exclusion

Swanson, Jean


... poverty is caused by laws and corporate decisions, not by individuals.

Chapter One
What poor people say about poor-bashing

Raised to poor-bash

Poor-bashing means ignoring facts and repeating stereotypes about people who are poor.

Consultation: another kind of poor-bashing

Poor-bashing a neighbourhood

Poor-bashing gets mixed up with racism

Poor-bashing stops communication

Poor-bashing and racism means being the subject of ignorant hate messages from people you don't know who accuse you of being every stereotype they ever associated with poverty and people of colour. end marker

Chapter Two
History: Making the rich better than the poor

It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should ... fulfil
the most servile, the most sordid, and the most ignoble
offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is
thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate are not
only relieved from drudgery, and freed from those occasional
employments which would make them miserable, but are left at
liberty ... to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.

Rev. Joseph Townsend, 1785

[The relief recipient's] situation on the whole shall not be
made really or apparently so eligible [desirable] as the
situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class.

English Poor Law Commissioners, 1834

Chapter Three
History: Keeping the myth alive

Mary Dowding 514 King St. E and husband. No children. says can't get work. fancy they don't want it. no reason why they should be in want. Recommend a little starvation until self help engendered, probably drink.

Volunteer visitor's note, Toronto, 1882

Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

United Nations Declaration of Hurt-tan Rights, 1948

[The poor] are the losers in the race for material sufficiency.

Senate report on poverty, 1971

Chapter Four
History: Justifying the race to the bottom

For people of colour around the world, there's always been a low-wage strategy. I think what's happening in Canada is that the numbers of people who fall into that morally justifiable group you can treat like shit is actually expanding.

Nandita Sharrna

What the corporations and their political servants are grappling with is how they go about abandoning a whole section of the population from any form of social provision whatsoever.

John Clarke

Chapter Five
Using language to corrupt thought

"Those cheaters [on welfare] are useless,"
the young man says. "The best thing
to do is set up a machine gun
at Hastings and Main
and open fire.
They're gonna die anyway, so it
might as well be sooner as later."

From a poem by Sandy Cameron about a conversation he overheard

A party member called upon to make a political or ethical judgment should be able to spray forth the correct opinions
as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets.

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Social policy experiments: These are programs designed to change the behaviour of individual poor people so they won't use welfare or employment insurance.

The wealth policy challenge

What would happen if we applied to the rich the same language that the think-tanks and others use to attack the poor? Let's assume that an antipoverty group wrote a series of studies called The Wealth Policy Challenge.

Study 1: Helping the Rich. This will examine the dependency of the rich on tax loopholes and inheritances. What government policies would end this dependency and help the rich to become productive citizens? What kinds of wealth policy experiments should provinces undertake to change the behaviour of millionaires so they would be more likely to share? Is the new "Dare to Share" life skills course for millionaires effective?

Study 2: Delaying Gratification. This study would include theories by a selection of non-rich people about why the rich keep taking foreign holidays, buying expensive clothes and cars, and living in mansions. Is it because they are immature, lack self-esteem, and cannot delay immediate gratification What government policies could give them an incentive to delay gratification? Would higher taxes on profits work? Or wealth taxes?

Study 3: Loophole Abuse. This study would examine the chronic abuse of tax loopholes by wealthy users. Would counselling and information about job vacancies help them get back on the right track?
Can Canadians afford to lose the tax dollars of people who invest in foreign tax shelters to avoid paying Canadian taxes? How many billions are we losing because of this rampant fraud?

Study 4: Incentives to Be Responsible. Why are corporations polluting the environment, laying off more and more people, and threatening to move to countries where they don't have to pay taxes and decent wages? The study would recommend ways of enforcing their obligation to engage in responsible behaviour. Could the owners of companies that get government assistance be required to work for their handouts? Could executives of forest companies be told to plant trees, for example, if they are getting subsidies, or care for the children of their laid-off workers while the parents look for new jobs?

Study 5: The Wealth Trap. Is it wealth that keeps its victims from seeking productive employment, knowing they can rely on its generous and unconditional benefits?
Are the problems of the wealthy passed on to the children of the wealthy, generation after generation? To what extent do family trusts (tax shelters that allow the rich to avoid taxes for a generation) contribute to generational wealth?
The study would ask a group of people on welfare to develop theories as well as graphs and mathematical equations about hypothetical and anecdotal rich people. The opinions of wealthy people would not be sought.

Study 6: The Psychology of Wealth. Does the experience of wealth have an unhealthy effect on the wealthy? Does it prevent them from getting productive skills; give them undeserved self-confidence; or create inappropriate attitudes? Would the wealthy have more self-esteem if they worked for their money instead of inheriting it?

Study 7: Rewarding Effort. Does the Canadian economic system reward effort or do too many wealthy people get money while they sleep? Is wealth an attractive alternative to work for some people? Does it provide a comfortable fall-back situation for people who would prefer not to work and does it reduce the intensity of their job search?

Study 8: Improving Productivity. Should the rich be forced to train for productive employment so they wouldn't spend so much time speculating and wheeling and dealing? After the studies were completed, people who were poor would present options for policies that give the wealthy a hand down, not a hand up.

After the studies were completed, people who were poor would present options for policies that give the wealthy a hand down, not a hand up.

Chapter Six
The media and politicians: Poor-bashing today

Question: What do these quotations have in common?

  1. Under everyone's nose, seemingly innocuous Bob Rae, following the lead of Liberal incompetent David Peterson, is paying pogey equivalent to $24 an hour or $865 a week.
  2. Millions of dollars in welfare money collected fraudulently by Somali refugees across Canada are being used to buy arms for Somali warlords.In Canada, welfare . . . carries no responsibility to be honest or seek independence.

Answer: They are lies printed in prominent Canadian papers in three series of articles that poor-bashed people on welfare in the early 1990s.end marker

Poor-bashing media and politicians play on classism, as well as racism and sexism, to advance a political agenda. end marker

Chapter Seven
The new poor laws: Helping employers and cheapening labour

Why pay people if Mr. Harris will give you slaves?

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, Northumberland

Chapter Eight
Substituting charity for justice

Charity is nice but power is better.

Placard message written by a person who uses charity

I thought that giving was supposed to be a pleasure. Why does it get turned around? Why are we made to feel humiliated because we're receiving? We're supposed to be grateful. We're not supposed to be arrogant, but why does the giver get to be arrogant?

A woman who uses charities

There is no problem, of course, with private charity to the unemployed, or to the poor, at whatever level ... First of all, since it is voluntary, it can be cut off if contributors feel it is doing more harm than good.

Walter Block, Fraser Institute

Chapter Nine
Bashing yourself: Clashing silently with privilege

After awhile we start to believe the messages
and we feel worthless even to ourselves.
We feel shame and the shame stops us from speaking out.

Vicki Columbaris

I think a lot of the war between the generations that people in poverty experience is promoted in schools. Often what people are trying to do is help, but whenever the middle class tries to help the poor, they have a way of making them feel shitty. end marker

Chapter Ten
Challenging poor-bashing within and around us

We all do this. We're all racist and sexist and we all poor-bash. We're programmed. What we have to do is realize it and try to stop it and help each other to stop.

Leigh Donahue

Challenge poor-bashing language, assumptions, double standards, and myths

"People don't choose to be poor. Circumstances put us there." end marker


Poverty in Canada kills more people than cancer does, according to the Ontario Medical Association. But there is a big difference between the two killers. While we don't yet know how to end cancer, we do know how to end poverty in the world, and especially in Canada. There are plenty of resources to do it and we don't need any high technology. At the world level, the United Nations says it would take only 4 per cent of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people (who have about one trillion dollars' worth of wealth) to pay for basic education, basic health care, reproductive health care, adequate food, safe water, and sanitation for all.

In Canada at the end of 1999 the federal government projected huge budget surpluses amounting to $95.5 billion over five years. This is enough to end poverty for everyone in Canada. Using the money for that purpose would have been a great way to enter the new millennium.

Instead of erasing poverty, however, Canadian federal and provincial governments, as we have seen, passed new poor laws that take us back to the beginnings of capitalism in the sixteenth century. On the world level, our government was working through the World Trade Organization to give corporations more rights and to speed up the competition for below-poverty-level wages throughout the world.

Just a few months before the budget surplus announcement, the mayor of Toronto was upset that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) was planning to set up a safe park for homeless people. We won't have people defecating in parks, or leaving their condoms and syringes lying around, he poor-bashed on an August 8, 1999, radio news program I heard in Vancouver.

Premier Mike Harris followed the mayor's homeless-bashing by introducing laws to severely restrict panhandling and outlaw squeegeeing, the often helpful practice of washing car windows at traffic lights for a donation. The money that could end the suffering of homeless people and the need to panhandle and squeegee was sitting right there in the federal budget. But it wasn't being used for that. In fact, politicians were not only bashing the poorest people, but were also making them into criminals for doing what they had to do to survive. Ontario politicians were announcing to the world, as Disraeli did in 1837, that poverty was a crime.

History was repeating itself for the rich too. Canadian corporations and their lobby groups wanted tax cuts for people in the highest tax bracket, those with incomes ranging from about $60,000 to millions a year. Just like the elite in the eighteenth century, the elite in the 1990s invented a way of portraying themselves as better than the poor. They called people in the highest tax bracket "brains" and "our best and brightest," and claimed the so-called brains were about to "drain" out of the country because of high taxation.

Since feudalism changed to capitalism in Europe, the elite have defended their wealth in the midst of poverty with myths, language, and patterns of thinking that justified treating Aboriginal people and women as cattle, people of colour as savages, the poor as "vicious" and lazy, and themselves as "civilized" and "virtuous." A huge part of justifying personal wealth is treating the people who don't have it, or the people it's taken from, as lesser human beings.

In the 1990s, as governments and corporations used trade deals to speed up the race to the bottom for low wages, poor-bashing, along with racism and sexism, made it seem almost natural that even more human beings had to work in "the most servile, the most sordid, and the most ignoble offices in the community," as one of the British elite said two centuries earlier.

I believe the big corporations have to take a huge responsibility for poor-bashing. They own the media that spread gossip and lies; that accuse people who use welfare and UI of being fraudulent. They funded the think-tanks that promote blatant, as well as more insidious, poor-bashing. They fund the think-tanks' efforts to circulate their views to politicians, government officials, and the media, as well as the public. They keep changing the subject from poverty to "incentive to work' at low wages and part-time jobs. They want poor-bashing policies like low or no minimum wages, welfare cuts, no government job creation, and trade deals that give corporations more rights.

Politicians in power have to take responsibility too. They bash the poor to get elected; save their political skins by calling the poor names; pass laws that deprive the poor of basic rights and needs—or keep silent when their colleagues do these things. They are working with the corporations to replace the human right to food and shelter with the inadequate provisions and unequal power relations of charity. They help corporations take advantage of the cheap labour of very poor people in this and other countries.

But we can't blame the whole problem on corporations and politicians. Nearly all of us, including people who are poor, have been programmed with almost five hundred years of poor-bashing ideas and behaviours. It takes a conscious and continuous effort to recognize and root out those ideas and behaviours.

If we are not Aboriginal and live in North America, most of us benefit from bashing even if we're not in the corporate or political elite. We occupy land that was stolen from Aboriginal people, who were dehumanized to justify the theft. We buy coffee grown on land that people in the Third World need for food. We may be members of unions or professions that have a history of excluding people of colour. Our country's politicians take Team Canada trips around the world to set up Canadian corporations in free trade areas in poorer countries where wages, taxes, and environmental standards are low. We buy the cheap products made by these exploited workers, and then some Canadians object when these workers try to move to Canada to seek the same kind of living conditions that we take for granted.

Ending poor-bashing is a crucial part of a much larger world struggle to realize what the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed, in 1948, as the "inherent dignity" and "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." It's a crucial part of this struggle because, like racism and sexism, poor-bashing is used to justify the inequality. "Our system is really okay," our programming tells us. "It's those lazy, alcoholic poor people with too many children who have to change their behaviour to get out of poverty." Or, "It doesn't cost as much to live in a poor country, therefore it's all right that the people there earn below poverty level wages." Or, "People of colour are better at doing that kind of stuff than people here, therefore their low wages are acceptable." In reality there is no justification for treating some groups of people as needing or deserving less than others.

Ending poor-bashing is an essential part of the struggle for justice because poor-bashing insidiously drives working people to demand the kinds of policies that cheapen their own paid work. "Those people on welfare have to be forced to work at any job so I won't have to support them with my taxes," says the programming. "Welfare rates should be too low to live on so the people who get it will be forced to take any low-wage job." In fact, as we have seen, welfare programs can help protect the wages and working conditions of working people only when they provide adequate benefits, don't force the unemployed to take degrading jobs or workfare jobs, and treat recipients with dignity.

Ending poor-bashing is also critical in the struggle for a just world because, like racism and sexism, it conceals who really has power. If we don't see who is powerful and how they use their power to create great wealth alongside poverty, we can't very well work effectively for more equality. While our country is ruled by an elite, we still have a vote that we can, theoretically, use to get politicians who will do what we want. But if voters get focused on the poor as simply bad individuals who cause their own poverty, on immigrants of colour whom they accuse of "taking all the jobs," or Aboriginal people whom they see as wanting too much land, they won't see how the elite is working to enrich itself. They won't see how laws and practices like low minimum wages, tax reductions for the rich, welfare cuts, interest rate policies, refusal to settle Aboriginal land claims, and free trade deals are what really cause poverty and economic insecurity, not the groups of people they've learned to blame.

Will we ever end or even reduce poor-bashing and achieve the ideals in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? I think we can be cautiously hopeful. Some of the building blocks of a huge movement for justice are coming into place. One positive sign is that more and more people are talking about poor-bashing. It's been named. As people who are poor learn to identify poor-bashing, they are losing their fear of speaking out against it, and refusing to accept it. While there is still a lot to learn about poor-bashing, more and more Canadians are now working to stop it.

Another good sign is that more people and organizations are finally getting serious about combining work against poverty and poor-bashing with work against racism and sexism and other oppressions. I'm an example of someone who has been slow to act on this understanding: racism, sexism, and poor bashing are all part of the same system of exclusion that sees some people as less valuable than others so that the elite can justify and conceal its wealth and power and cheapen labour.

This work to fight racism, sexism, poor-bashing and poverty together won't be easy because of how we've been programmed and how most of us, even those who are not among the powerful elite, benefit in some ways from a system that exploits others. It will be important for white people in this movement to figure out and acknowledge their privilege. Most of us need to learn more about the histories of racism, sexism, and poor-bashing - not just what happened, but also why and who benefits.

People who aren't poor will need to do a lot of listening, be willing to learn, leave space for others, and actively work to end poverty. If we can do this with respect, it could bring together a lot of people who have been separated in the larger struggle for worldwide justice.

It has given me hope to see the number of thoughtful, active, committed people who are making their lives a struggle for justice. Probably none of them will get an Order of Canada or any other famous prize. Fay Blaney is a living example of how to challenge poor-bashing by uniting it with education against racism and sexism too. She sees building a broad coalition to work for justice as a matter of life and death, which it is, especially for the poor, Aboriginal people, people of colour, and people in poor countries.

Not only is she raising two children, and working to support them, but she also volunteers with women's and Aboriginal groups working for justice.

Marlene Vieno of Winnipeg takes a special pride in her birthday, December 10th, International Human Rights Day. "I've always believed in equality, social justice, and fairness for everybody," Marlene told me. She has battled the mental health and welfare systems for about forty years, working in different anti-poverty and other groups.

Other people featured in this book have devoted decades to antipoverty and coalition work, much of it unpaid. And there are thousands more across the country, trying to cope on totally inadequate incomes and, at the same time, working in little groups and larger ones to raise poverty, poor-bashing, and social justice issues. People like John Clarke of OCAP, and others, have been arrested for their beliefs, and I suspect a lot more of us will be jailed as our struggle continues.

There is a growing anger in Canada among people who have been made poor since the Canada Assistance Plan was abolished and the attacks on poor people increased. Time and again, people who return from humiliating, useless visits to welfare and unemployment insurance offices have broken down and made the same simple statement to me: "I'm human too." I'm hopeful that learning about poor-bashing and its role in promoting a society of greed and poverty will help to keep people from turning that anger inward at themselves, or at their spouses or children, or at other oppressed people who may be in a different group from them. I'm hoping that we can build an anti-poverty movement that focuses that anger at the system that causes the poverty of all people in the world.

I believe that we can use the strength and intelligence of people who are poor, the understanding that people who are poor have of what's really important in life, to build power with, not over, all oppressed people. An understanding of poor-bashing, racism, and sexism can help unite Canadians with others concerned about the environment, peace, workers' rights, and social and economic justice into a huge solidarity movement. Eventually, we will build a world in which everyone's needs are met, and in which the systems and structures we set up are based on co-operation and human caring, not competition and greed.

How you can tell when the media poor-bash

Sometimes poor-bashing is obvious. Calling people on welfare names like cheats or criminally inclined opportunists is blatant poor-bashing. But subtle poor-bashing can be just as devastating. You must read or listen critically to make sure you're not being taken in by it.
Newfoundland anti-poverty activist Bev Brown asks these questions about media coverage of poverty issues when she gives workshops on poverty and the media:

What's left out of the story?

Issues usually left out of articles about welfare and UI are the high unemployment rate, the poor quality of jobs that are available (when they are), an explanation of who benefits from poverty, information about the laws that cause poverty (like low welfare rates and minimum wages), and information about who has the funds or could create the jobs or pay the wages to reduce poverty.

Who is speaking?

Do poor people or groups that represent poor people have any voice in the story? Do we hear directly from people in poverty or only from people who work for agencies or charities or from researchers who theorize about them?

Is the story based on false assumptions?

Is it assumed that jobs are available when they aren't? That welfare is generous? That people on welfare are lazy? That welfare is easily available? That people on welfare and UI don't have to look for work? That single moms aren't productive? That people have to be forced to look for work? That training programs will create enough jobs for all who need them?

What are the subtle messages of the story?

Does it suggest—without clearly stating— that people who have paid work are better than people who have unpaid work (caring for children, for example)? Does it imply that people on welfare prefer this to a range of other options?

Does the story use facts, or gossip and insinuation?

Are sources named? Are the sources right-wing think-tanks that have a vested interest in policies that cut the taxes and reduce the wages that their member corporations pay? Are the sources "authorities" who promote the typical stereotypes about people on welfare or UI? Would a similar standard of accuracy apply when reporting about a person or group with a lot of power?

Does the story use the social policy newspeak words?

Does it use words or phrases like dependent, incentive, disincentive, and others (described in Chapter 5) that blame the poor and take the pressure off the rich?

Brown recommends these supplementary questions:

A final test: how would it sound if the statements about poor people were made about women or people of colour? Would it be okay to say that women are "criminally inclined opportunists"? That would be sexist. Would it be okay to say that people of colour are "criminally inclined opportunists"? No, that would be racist. Then it's poor-bashing to say that people on welfare are "criminally inclined opportunists."