Finding new ways to help the poor
By Katherine Gombay
Asking someone about his or her finances is always a delicate business. It’s even more so when you are a researcher and the people you are talking to are the subjects of your study. Then if you factor in that the researcher is non-Native and the subjects are Aboriginal, what you get is a potentially sensitive situation. This is why David Rothwell, a professor in the School of Social Work, is moving slowly and carefully ahead with a new research project into child savings accounts in Kahnawake. He wants to find out how people are currently saving and what their ideas are for their children’s education.
The project builds on a similar one Rothwell was involved with in Singapore, and falls within the context of shifting theories about the best ways to reduce poverty.
“Post-World-War II welfare policy designed this safety-net system that was mostly based on monthly income transfers,” says Rothwell. “Maintenance is important, don’t get me wrong. People need food on the table, and they need electricity from month to month … all these foundations of the social safety net are critical. But we’ve seen that over time, over the past 40 years, these transfers only reduce poverty so much. So there needs to be a different way of approaching it.”
Indeed, a new school of thought in social policy suggests that the best way to help the poor is not through monthly welfare checks, but rather by helping them to invest in assets such as homes and education. This is the line of research that Rothwell is interested in pursuing.
“These asset-based programs are kind of controversial,” says Rothwell. “They get criticized for reinforcing a market-based, capitalism-focused accumulation. But the response to that is that in the world we live in these things are important.”
Asset-based poverty reduction programs have been tested in the U.S. and have involved helping people to identify goals such as buying a home, or getting an education or starting a business and then providing them with additional funds. So, for instance, according to Rothwell, people might put aside something like $1,000 towards a house, and this would be supplemented by government funds of $3,000. (These figures serve simply as examples and are not based on actual figures that were used in the programs.)
The results from these types of programs in the U.S. have been positive, particularly from those designed to give people access to home ownership. But Rothwell cautions that these kinds of asset-based programs are costly and may not work for everyone. “They work for some part of the low-income population, though not for the extremely poor. They are designed more for the working poor, people with relatively few psycho-social barriers.”
Quebec is actively trying to reduce poverty with an action plan to fight against poverty and social exclusion. In fact, according to Rothwell, it was the first jurisdiction in North America to pass legislation to combat poverty. A couple of other provinces have since followed suit. He adds that the provincial government is spending approximately $7 billion on studying and intervening to reduce poverty.
But so far, Rothwell says, the asset-based framework for poverty reduction has not been discussed very much in social work settings or in thinking about social policy in Canada. This is where he hopes to help wit his ongoing research into asset-based programs to reduce poverty in this country.
“These programs are not the panacea to poverty, but there is evidence that suggests that they work for certain people under certain conditions.” And Rothwell is eager to help fill in this picture.
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