If one is not poor themselves, it is easy to look at a neighbourhood like Highfield Park or the north end of Halifax as nothing more than inspiration to donate to a food bank. In the time I've spent living in poor communities in both Cape Breton and in my new home of north Dartmouth, I have become convinced that understanding poverty has to begin with understanding that poor people are routinely robbed of the small amount of money they have available to them. Mathew Desmond, a social researcher at Harvard, has made the argument that typical anti-poverty research enumerating the effects of lack of services and more intangible things like deficient role models and morals hide the ugly truth about what creates a slum: theft from the poor on such a grand scale it can only be called exploitation.
Stealing from the poor may seem counterintuitive. After all, poor people by definition have very little money. When collectively gouged, though, meagre incomes can become staggering profits. When doing research in Milwaukee, Desmond started by asking himself why "upper-class landlords would buy and manage property in some of Milwaukee's roughest neighborhoods. At the end of my fieldwork, I wondered why they wouldn't."
Providing low-rent housing is very lucrative. Poor neighbourhoods provide a pool of people desperate to find or keep a place to live. Landlords who rent to large numbers of folks on social assistance receive an informal yet huge government subsidy in the form of welfare and disability housing allowances being directly transferred into their bank accounts monthly.
More unscrupulous rental property owners pad their bottom line by foregoing building superintendents, repairs and avoiding reinvesting any money collected in rent back into their properties, but it is important to remember that even the "good" ones are engaged in a relationship that is fundamentally about making profit.
Landlords aren't having all the fun here either. The financial services sector depends on people like me, low-paid workers, for their profits. Payday loan vendors are the worst offender. Playing on the instability low- and moderate-wage earners experience living week-to-week, they offer high-interest short-term loans and make a killing.
Immigrant and temporary foreign workers get further gouged in the for-profit money transfer services they depend on to send money to family overseas. Regulating fees for money transfers at outfits like Western Union by capping them at 10 percent would put as much in the pockets of the world's poorest people as increasing Canada's foreign aid by seven percent.
A chain grocery store that services a poor neighbourhood has a captive audience to sell pricey, nutritionally deficient food to. Paradoxically, when these stores pack up and leave, a community is bad off in a new way as there is now no access to food nearby.
What's further concerning is that at least one of the groups actively exploiting the poor is being leaned on for guidance in government policy around poverty. Private sector landlords have had a huge hand in the recent Affordable Housing Strategy released by the provincial government, which unsurprisingly contains no recommendations for legislative changes that will protect tenants or limit the power of landlords to take advantage of tenants.
With all this in mind, I hope you get some insight into why I grow wary of efforts to fix poverty by trying to fix poor people and get angry at public showings of benevolence from the sectors making money off of poor people.
While more complicated, more controversial and more difficult, I am optimistic that uniting our communities against injustice is the way forward. There are many of us in the HRM who have had to deal with the effects of economic exploitation head-on. There are more people experiencing various levels of poverty than there are taking advantage of it. When organized, we can win real changes in our lives and begin to correct the power imbalance between the rich and the rest of us.
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