Friday, August 25, 2006

The left and moral disgrace

Yesterday there was a report released by the National Council on Welfare about the cuts to welfare that have taken place in Canada over the last decade or more. We are talking shockingly low rates. Rates that are very, very difficult to live on anywhere, but are impossible to subsist on in expensive cities like Vancouver and Toronto, without supplement from food banks, missions, etc. We're talking rates that have gone down in some provinces (like BC) by 50%. We're talking single parents in Alberta, a province very rich with oil money, given a rate that amounts to 48% of the poverty line. We're talking a single person getting enough, in Ontario, to pay for a room in a shared house in Toronto; nothing more. (This is yet another blow to Canadians' placid contentment with our social safety net, which has disintegrated rapidly over the last decade and a half.)

What I find interesting, captured in this article, is the language of morality. The guy from the National Council on Welfare calls it "morally disgraceful". It reminds of that cover article in the New York Times Magazine, last winter, about how the left is making inroads in the fight for a living wage in the US by casting it as a moral issue.

Though I'm wary of morality talk in the public sphere because it sure hasn't, historically, been the friend of women, queers, and any marginalized group, I'm intrigued. I really, really wonder if this is the only way left to make an impact - to take the right's strategy and turn it around. Take the focus off the moral policing of social questions like same-sex marriage, and make of political economy a moral issue. I mean, obviously the left is guided by a set of values, principles. This would simply entail foregrounding that in particular, strategic ways, right?

What think you, blogosphere?


Mireille said...

Welfare, when you come to think about it is always about morals and has always been. Who will receive money, under what conditions, if they fit what a society considers to be 'a person in need' versus a lazy, irresponsible person.
(I must improve my English to write proper comments!)
If you can read French, this may interest you
and it should be translated, somewhere...

Hilaire said...

You're absolutely right, Mireille...certainly it's been through noxious morality-talk that the right has succeeded in gutting welfare like this. And this is where I wonder if the left should figure out how to consistently use that same weapon right know? Bring its "moral stance" out into the open, the way the right has done. Because I think ultimately it's an appealing one. Though perhaps casting it in terms of ethics, and not morals, will be less nauseating.

Thanks for the reference - I do read French.

Do you work on this issue? You must know Margaret Little's work...such important stuff on the moral policing of welfare and aid recipients.

Texter said...

It reminds me of a book I've been wanting to read, The Politics of Disgust: the public identity of the welfare queen.
I do think that many issues could be fruitfully framed by questions of ethics - I tried to introduce economic parity as a human rights issue in my writing class last year: not one student chose it as the first choice for their final project, preferring environmentalism and stem cell debates. the idea that poverty is either "bad luck" or a result of poor choices is so ingrained among the privilegencia and everyone else as well.