Friday, October 22, 2004

Seth (and others) to the Rescue

Back at the Asset Building Conference today, I started talking to people at my table about my worries about this model of market-based poverty-reduction being used as an excuse to spend even less on income support for poor people. Lots of people were thinking the same thing. In the meantime, several of the presenters pointed out that asset-building programs like Individual Development Accounts (see my previous post if this sounds like Greek) are a complement to income assistance, affordable housing, public schools and universities, job training, universal medical care etc. So I was starting to feel better.

Then at the lunchtime panel (yup, they kept talking even while we ate lunch - no time wasted at this event) Seth Kline of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives spoke. This turned my doubts around. Here's what Seth said, in a nutshell:

  • While he agrees with many of the things that the asset-building people are saying, he is concerned that some governments will see asset-building as a substitute for social welfare systems and income support.
  • The asset-building model is helpful only to a subset of those in need of assistance.
  • Current social policies are in conflict with the asset-building approach and penalize people for saving money for a small business or education.
  • He is skeptical about programs geared to fix policy mistakes. He sees some asset-building initiatives as less comprehensive and administratively more expensive replacements for good programs that have been eliminated. For example, learning bonds and RESPs are good, but don't replace accessible, affordable post-secondary education.
I was willing to turn my optimism up because the organizers of the conference invited Seth, knowing he would express this point of view. The rest of the speakers throughout the day referred to his remarks, agreeing with them, as they framed their comments and recommendations. At the end of the day, in the wrap-up, several speakers talked about the need for those at the forefront of the asset-building movement to ensure that asset-building is seen as just one approach in a continuum of services and supports for people in need.

I also ate lunch with VanCity and Western Economic Diversity representatives, and talked to them about the kinds of criteria their organizations consider in choosing which projects to support. What I heard was a sincere commitment to programs that initiatives that build strength in communities and strengthen the economy at the same time. Sure, they're doing it because it's good for the corporation, and good for the government, but it's good for the people too, which gives me a nauseous and disoriented feeling because I think if I look in the mirror there will be Gordon Campbell's head stuck on my body and it's still a week before Halloween. But maybe this can work, to some degree, and with some degree of real goodness.

I'm exhausted and overwhelmed, with a stuffed and stretched brain. I will sleep and go back for 4 more hours tomorrow, then it's over, but it's never over, really....

Question: Sincere good intention or slickety-smart PR move?

mompoet - not quite ready to buy the Brooklyn Bridge but willing to have a look

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