B.C.’s poor a convenient target in the politics of class rivalry 

Premier Campbell has a New Year’s resolution for B.C.’s poorest – – get off welfare and get a job.  It’s more than a suggestion.  In four months, thousands will be cut off welfare.  The B.C. Liberals refuse to say exactly how many.

The resolution won’t apply to Campbell, however.  Oh no, he prefers welfare, defined as “well-being, happiness, health and prosperity” by the Canadian Oxford dictionary.

The semantic difference between being on welfare and possessing welfare may be slight but they are worlds apart.

While the welfare of the rich is improving, welfare for the poor is under attack.  That wasn’t always so.  Welfare was once a good idea supported by nearly all governments.  Especially in the past when 80 per cent were poor compared to today’s 20 percent.

Modern welfare began over one hundred years ago as a response to disease and child poverty.  Welfare first depended on the philanthropic inclinations the wealthy and was generally treated as a local and private concern.  The government run welfare state soon became the sign of a civilized society.

Welfare was expanded after the First World War when soldiers returned to jobs held by women.  Many of those women lost their jobs to men, and lost husbands on the battlefield. The “mother’s allowance” was established to help those single mothers.

The failure of capitalism during the great depression of the 1930s left all but the wealthy doubting about the supposed restorative power of the marketplace.  It became abundantly clear that philanthropic inclinations and a mother’s allowance was not going to be enough to pull most Canadians out of poverty.

The post-war economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s was a contrast to the dirty thirties.  Wages improved and the number of middle-class Canadians increased.  But they never forgot the depression and poverty was a persistent memory passed down through generations.

That memory of poverty gave political impetus to our modern welfare state with its three cornerstones – – Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, and the Canada Assistance Plan.

The post-war economic upsurge was followed by a downturn in the 1970s. North American economies have never really recovered since. This period is characterized by an aging population, stagnant wages, growing unemployment, failure of large corporations, cuts of transfer payments to the provinces, and growing welfare ranks.

The growth of food banks are reminiscent of soup lines that my parents saw in the 1930s.  Poverty has thrown Canadians out on the streets.  The number of street people has also grown by the closing of institutions like Kamloops’ Tranquille Sanatorium in which many mentally ill patients were left to fend for themselves.  The generational memory of the depression is fading.

“The modern conservative conception of the welfare state is guided by principles of 19th century liberalism, i.e., less government equals more liberty (Canadian Encyclopedia).”

In this view, the reduction of inequality by the welfare state is seen as the antithesis of pursuit of freedom and material progress.

This is what the welfare state has come to.  Canada’s poor have been targeted, not only as a drain on taxes but as lacking the work ethic of the deserving rich class.  The failure of capitalism to provide a living for all is seldom mentioned.

The poor make a convenient political target because they don’t have the resources to fight back.  Politicians remind the middle class that their taxes going to support able-bodied people on welfare.  B.C.’s working poor don’t need to be reminded that their standard of living has been slipping.

In 1970, low-income Canadians had to work 50 hours a week just to keep above the poverty line.  “In the 1980s, this rose to 87 hours, in the 1990s, to 100 hours,” says University of Regina professor John Conway in his article for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The politics of class rivalry have worked well for the B.C. Liberals.  By attacking the poor who are on welfare, Premier Campbell can avoid questions about the excessive welfare of the rich.

B.C.’s rich are doing just fine.  Our province has the wealthiest citizens in Canada.  In 1999 the net wealth of the richest 10 per cent was $1,278,534.

Premier Campbell will promote welfare for the rich but not for the poor.   Until the poor have a voice in government, they will continue to be a convenient target.

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