Edmonton’s Mayor out to tackle poverty

But ending poverty will require more than simply looking at it through a narrow financial lens

EDMONTON, AB, Apr 28, 2014/ Troy Media/ – In his first State of the City address Don Iveson, Edmonton’s newly-elected mayor, made a serious commitment to tackling poverty. He left little doubt of his seriousness: “Poverty is complex. Its causes are multi-faceted, interlinked and anything but straightforward. Many are afraid to tackle it. But I am not.”

These are, of course, noble sentiments. However, it’s clear that eliminating poverty is no simple task. It has, for example, been a top priority (globally) for over half a century, but efforts at eliminating poverty have been almost a total failure.

Consider the United States government’s War on Poverty. President Lyndon Johnson launched the War on Poverty in the late ‘60s with a rousing ambition, promising “not only to relieve the symptoms of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it.” Fifty years and $21.5 trillion later, poverty continues to plague many rural districts and inner city communities in the United States. The shadow of poverty haunts the American political landscape

Canadian attempts at eliminating chronic poverty have fared little better. Today, in the second decade of the 21st century over 40 per cent of Indigenous children in Canada live in poverty. The situation varies regionally but is worse on the prairies and in destination cities for at-risk youth like Edmonton.

Perhaps the real poverty is in our understanding of the problem?

To begin with, we have a serious measurement problem. At the moment, poverty is measured using per capita consumption data. An individual is considered poor if he or she consumes less than the daily poverty line. This metric both defines and measures poverty solely in financial terms.

Looking at poverty through this narrow financial lens is like trying to navigate your way across the open prairies using a microscope – when what you really need is a much broader telescope.

Mark Anielski, co-founder of the Genuine Wealth Institute has a different idea. Poverty is not simply the absence of wealth, he claims, that idea has been tried and proven wrong. But what can be said is that poverty is the absence of Genuine Wealth.

Genuine Wealth is a broader and more comprehensive measure of well-being for individuals, families, communities and nations. The telescope of genuine wealth views the world through a Five Capital lens, one that employs traditional financial and built capitals – these are vital – but also incorporates many presently invisible sources of wealth, including natural capital as well as the core relational wealth found in our human and social capital.

Anielski champions the idea that individual, family and community well-being is the antidote to poverty. And creating these conditions is less about throwing money at the problem than building the invisible social assets that facilitate individual and community growth.

So, what are these invisible assets and are they real like land, buildings and money? To illustrate all this, let’s consider the following human capital story.

Imagine the 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky, an individual with enormous potential. Lets call it his human capital. Fully developed, this raw human capital was translated into athletic genius. This was the translation of human capital into a human capital asset, which Wayne Gretzky leveraged to win Stanley Cups and in the process create a considerable personal fortune.

However, that human capital would never have been realized without access to society’s other invisible assets, particularly its social capital assets. Social capital is the raw material of culture, the willingness and ability of individuals to cooperate, to work together for common purpose.

The social capital ‘asset’ that set Wayne on his way to stardom was the result of this cooperation. It included his loving family but also the various volunteer minor hockey associations that provided him valuable ice time, the minor hockey leagues and teams, volunteer coaches and all the administration necessary for this future champion to gain and hone his natural skills into a polished professionalism.

These organizations are the social ‘assets’ that facilitate human capital development in the world of ice hockey. The combination of these presently invisible assets created something of real value for Wayne and for many hockey fans around the world.

What’s emerging in the modern era is a growing awareness of these invisible assets and a realization that poverty is – in part – an individual’s lack of life-supporting relational capital and access to the social assets necessary to develop their human capital and generate the conditions of well-being.

For Mayor Iveson this would, perhaps, be a good place to start. Let Edmonton take the lead, designing a program to build the invisible asset infrastructure that will provide a sustainable pathway out of poverty and despair for many disadvantaged individuals in society today.

Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and co-founder of the Genuine Wealth Institute, an Alberta-based think tank dedicated to helping businesses, communities and nations built communities of wellbeing. Robert is the author of The Creative Revolution, an historical guide to the future of capitalism.

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