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The War on the Poor in the Age of Austerity

Canadian PoliticsEconomic Crisis

Homeless camp in East Vancouver, September 2017. Photo by Kenny McDonald (Flickr).

Last year, I stepped down as an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) after 28 years devoted to resisting an escalating war on the poor. Though I wish it were otherwise, it has been a largely defensive fight against a regressive agenda that continues to take an ever more severe toll on poor communities under attack.

The OCAP years have seen the abandonment of social housing by governments, the elimination of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP), Tory cutbacks that compare to those of Thatcher and Reagan and their consolidation by Liberal governments. When we began we never imagined that the state of homelessness would attain the grim proportions it exhibits today. The intensification of the war on the poor is the defining feature of the last three decades.

It has played a distinctive role in the broader neoliberal assault on the working class. At root, the dominant motivation has been to restore profitability through intensified exploitation. Technological innovation and class war have combined to reorganize the global workforce. The Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research uses the example of the iPhone to demonstrate the brutal efficiency of the Global Supply Chain. As it accesses raw materials and component parts, such an operation takes advantage of egregiously exploited workforces across the planet.

Even in a rich country like Canada, the neoliberal decades have seen a huge intensification of the rate of exploitation. Industrial jobs have been moved offshore, unions have been weakened, low wage precarious work has proliferated and the social infrastructure has been battered. A key component of the attack on social programs and public services, has been the reduction of income support for unemployed, sick and disabled people.

Undercutting Income Support

Since the dawn of capitalism, the capacity of employers to drive down wages and impose harsh working conditions on workers has hinged on the existence of unemployment. If the unemployed have relatively decent systems of social provision, they are less likely to accept work on the worst terms. If, on the other hand, they totter on the edge of destitution, employers will be in a position to use them to intimidate and discipline those who already have jobs and to depress wages.

As capitalism developed in England and the dispossessed peasants were forced into waged work, the Tudor authorities wrestled with the question of how to regulate the unemployed surplus population. Facing social unrest from these abandoned people, a reluctant concession was provided in the form of the Poor Law of 1601. For almost two and a half centuries, the workhouse system that this legislation created was resisted and the poor fought for “outdoor relief” to avoid confinement in these hated institutions. After 1834, a determined effort was made to enforce the workhouse requirement under a principle known as “less eligibility.” This called for relief to be set at levels below the lowest paying jobs and delivered under punitive conditions. The concept has guided the practices of welfare systems in numerous countries, including Canada, ever since.

The boom years following the Second World War were a period of relative class compromise, at least in the Global North. Trade unions made significant gains, social programs were strengthened and the war on the poor pursued with reduced ferocity. However, by the 1970s, these concessions were cutting into profit rates and a sharply different neoliberal strategy was adopted that included a drive to undermine income support. It has continued up to the present day and been taken to extreme levels.

The attack on income support has generated major gains for employers. In 1997, one worker in forty in Ontario had to settle for a minimum wage job but by 2015 that had risen to one worker in eight. While a range of factors are responsible, the gutting of income support has been a major and indispensable part of the rise of a precarious, elastic and expendable workforce worldwide.

As successful as the war on the poor has been in intensifying exploitation, it brings with it some problems. When the Tudor authorities created their Poor Law, they provided enough relief to contain social unrest, while ensuring the concession was not substantial enough to increase workers’ bargaining power. The present attack on income support systems has now graduated from a reduced level of entitlement to unmitigted social abandonment. This raises the same issues that faced the architects of the Poor Law.

Consider the the homeless crisis in California. Across North America and far beyond, the drastic reduction in measures of social provision has combined with a speculative driving up of housing costs to fuel an explosion in homelessness. In California, this has reached disastrous levels. The rate of homelessness has shot up by some 16.4% in the last year and the numbers of utterly destitute people on the streets of the major cities is generating a public health crisis and levels of dislocation that threaten the viability of commercial businesses. Some local politicians want to ease up on austerity and provide housing but the Trump Administration seems to favour the establishment of federal holding facilities for the homeless on the urban fringes. If the agenda of social abandonment is not relaxed, the state must resort to the most authoritarian solutions in order to maintain social order.

Global Slump

With more than a decade of sluggish low wage recovery yielding to conditions of global economic slump, the situation will only deteriorate. Bare subsistence on poverty wages will give over to dramatically increased unemployment. Inadequate welfare systems will experience sharply rising caseloads. Overloaded homeless shelters will face impossible demands, as more and more people are put onto the streets. In such a context, the question of whether the response is one of provision or abandonment will rest in large measure on the scale and effectiveness of social resistance.

During the decades that OCAP has existed, we’ve taken up many fights. We resisted the Mike Harris Tories in the 90s. We organized a major campaign for Special Diet benefits for people on social assistance that won hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ve struggled relentlessly against the mounting homeless disaster in Toronto. We’ve challenged the present Doug Ford regime. These struggles have created an important model of resistance but we have to step up the scale of our response. By way of example, we must be able to do more than fight for additional shelters when there are enough condos (bought up by speculators) sitting empty to house every homeless person in Toronto several times over. We need a united movement of workers and communities under attack strong enough to take and hold those empty homes.

The neoliberal decades have taken the war on the poor to new levels and worse lies ahead. The response must be a united working class fight back that leaves no one behind and that puts those waging war on the poor on the defensive for the first time in many years.

John Clarke is a writer and retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP). Follow his tweets at @JohnOCAP and blog at johnclarkeblog.com.

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