The Human Face
ISARC puts a human face on poverty
By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register
TORONTO – Church anti-poverty activists are hoping the testimony of people trapped in poverty will transcend political divisions and paralysis to get the government moving on poverty reduction.
The Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition is asking the government to deliver on an Ontario Affordable Housing Strategy promise. It also wants a report from the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council that will measure how the government is doing on its promise to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent by 2014.
ISARC produced its own report last fall: Persistent Poverty: Dispatches From the Margins. It’s the fourth ISARC social audit — a collection of stories of people living on social assistance and the testimony of social workers and volunteers who work with the poor.
Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Peter Hundt took part in an ISARC social audit hearing in Barrie. The stories of individuals living in poverty, as opposed to statistical analysis and policy discussions, are essential to understanding the poor, he said.
“It’s putting a face on it,” said Hundt. “One of the problems in our society in general, certainly dealing with poverty, is that it’s faceless.”
It’s important both that poor people be allowed to tell their story and that the rest of us hear the stories, said the bishop.
“It was humbling how much it meant to them to be able to tell their story,” he said. “It was also ennobling.”
“Statistics don’t mobilize people,” said ISARC chair Susan Eagle. “If statistics changed things, we would have seen a lot more change by now.”
The original idea behind the ISARC social audits was to produce a detailed policy analysis that would measure government performance, said former ISARC chair Rev. David Pfrimmer. In the end the faith leaders discovered that the stories of people living in poverty were simply more important than another policy document, he said.
“Stories have the power to break the tyranny of the solitudes that creep into our community,” he said.
Pfrimmer hopes the collection of stories from people stymied by welfare system bureaucracy, relying on food banks month after month and seeing their children ridiculed for their clothes, their lunches and their inability to afford class trips reaches all political parties to form a cross-party consensus.
“We have Conservatives who don’t conserve any more. We have Liberals stalled on the road to progress because there are no new ideas. We have social democrats whose commitment to solidarity is too weak to change anything,” said Pfrimmer.
ISARC is betting that its social audit can at least convince politicians of every stripe that poverty is real and needs to be dealt with immediately.
That’s not far fetched, said Liberal MP Glen Murray.
“Your ideas can be big drivers,” Murray told the ISARC meeting of about 100 faith leaders meeting with many of the poor people whose testimony has been logged by the year-long social audit.
It’s important for ISARC to hold the government accountable on its responsibility to fight poverty, he said. Faith leaders can make poverty a mainstream issue that all parties have to respond to, said Murray.
“I hope that many of my colleagues can address this in a less partisan fashion,” he said.
In the leafy suburbs of Barrie, one of the most important things the social audit can accomplish is to remind people they and their community are not immune to poverty, said Hundt.
“It’s easy to say ‘Oh yeah, a place like Barrie, everything is fine there.’ But the food banks aren’t able to keep up,” Hundt said.
Being sure that we are concretely connected to poor people is an important way of responding to the Pope’s latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, he said.
“In Caritas in Veritate, chapter five, the Pope starts off saying one of the greatest forms of poverty is isolation,” said Hundt.