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Robert McGarveyEdmonton Mayor Don Iveson wants to eliminate poverty in a generation. You have to admire his vision and ambition, but it won’t be easy to accomplish this lofty goal.

The Mayor’s Poverty Task Force studied the problem and has recently made 28 recommendations. It identified the root causes of poverty as a chronic lack of jobs, difficulty accessing public services, and racism.

The task force recommended the establishment of a community development corporation to help the disadvantaged obtain the job training they need and advocated for a single card that could be used to access government programs and services.

Edmonton’s disadvantaged youth are particularly vulnerable and regularly fall into a negative cycle. A typical story often involves a young, unemployed aboriginal youth living on the street. This young person is fined for riding on the LRT without a ticket. With no known address, all communication fails, court dates are missed, fines are doubled and then tripled, eventually warrants are issued and our youth is then classified as an offender. Soon the youth in question is gobbling up vast amounts of police time and court costs, as well as penal and healthcare resources.

According to the task force, it is a spiral of despair that could easily be avoided if we established an aboriginal culture and wellness centre, or gave greater support to groups like Edmonton’s iHuman Youth Society. These entities provide vital support for at risk youth and could provide qualifying individuals with tickets for riding public transit.

The most obvious symptom of poverty identified by the task force is housing. Buying or renting accommodation in Edmonton is expensive, even for the wage-earning majority. For low-income families, it’s an enormous burden and for the worst off amongst us, it is an insurmountable barrier to normalcy.

The task force recommends examining creative ways to overcome this burden by building low-cost housing alternatives, including tiny homes, or small pod-type apartments, lodges, and temporary modular facilities.

Regrettably, these initiatives will help relieve the worst symptoms of poverty but will not address the underlying disease, which is the growth of chronic imbalances in modern capitalism.

For several decades, now, there has been a growing disconnect between economic productivity and wages. This imbalance – which did not exist prior to 1973 – is placing downward pressure on lifestyles and forcing large numbers on the bottom rung of the social ladder into poverty.

It is here that we must focus attention if we’re to cure our cities from the disease of poverty.

A great battle between capital and labour was fought in Western Capitalism during the 20th century. After two of the most violent wars in history and an unparalleled rights revolution, it was thought that a balance had been struck between these competing forces. Alas, just as victory was being celebrated in 1960s, capital seized victory from the jaws of defeat with the rise of the Chicago School and the free market ideas embedded in monetarism.

Since the ascendency of the Chicago School, there has been a significant diversion of resources from labour to capital. The forces of globalization, various ‘free’ trade deals, and the importation of temporary foreign works has tipped the capital/labour balance dramatically. This has disadvantaged wage earners while creating – on the capital side – galloping asset bubbles in property and the stock market.

Edmonton’s Poverty task force recommendations are impressive and will help, but this problem is much larger than the City of Edmonton.

Nevertheless, initiatives to re-balance modern capitalism are desperately needed. What can reasonable people do?

The idea of a guaranteed national income has been tossed around for many decades now, and was once again highlighted by the task force. Clearly, this is a national issue that demands a degree of political will and popular support not presently on the horizon. Although many purists oppose it on principle, it would help solve the central imbalances in modern capitalism by providing wage earners and the poor with an additional dividend on their productivity, a return on their social equity.

But Canadians could also look to the past for innovative ways of dealing with poverty.

In the past Canadians were more generous. Programs like the Homesteading Act in 1871, introduced by Sir John A MacDonald, helped millions of poor immigrants gain access to valuable assets in exchange for their labour and social commitment. Neo-homesteading programs targeted at inner-city residents or aboriginal peoples would give millions a pathway to self-determination and help re-balance capitalism in Canada as a necessary prerequisite to the permanent elimination of poverty.

Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.

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Eliminating poverty

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