Poverty: the ultimate litmus test of democracy

If we were to judge democracy using the language of business we would ask how it does on the “deliverables.”  In other words, does it deliver on its promises of equality? In a capitalist society it is virtually impossible to deliver anything like complete equality but the role of government in the period following the Second World War was to provide a measure of equality in a system whose foundation was inequality. It has always struck me that the term we use to describe our political economic system – liberal democracy – is an oxymoron. Or more accurately a system that tries to integrate two mortally hostile notions: property rights and democracy. These are two principles that cannot be reconciled – eternal conflict is literally guaranteed.

Property rights have been winning the struggle for over twenty years and a couple of recent reports indicate the results. One, on Canada, was published in the journal Health Reports and it revealed an almost direct correlation between poverty and life expectancy. While Canadians generally enjoy one of the highest life expectancies in the world (82 years for women and 76.9 for men) the numbers are shockingly different when adjusted for income.

The Statistics Canada study examined so-called “socio-economic” factors (income, education, housing, physical environment) as determinants of health – and health as a factor in life expectancy. The results are disturbing – a child born poor in this country is robbed of years of life (to say nothing of the quality of the years actually lived).

Looking at Canadian men in the lowest 10 per cent of income earners, just 51.2 per cent  can expect to live to age 75 whereas 74.6 per cent of the wealthiest 10 per cent can expect to see 75. Women don’t fare quite as badly:  69.4 per cent of poor women live to 75, compared with 84.4 per cent of wealthy women.

Comparing a wealthy man at 25 with a poor man shows that the latter is robbed of seven and a half years of life because of his economic status: he will live another 48.6 years while his rich counterpart will enjoy an additional 56 years.  The gap for women is 4.5 years.

To put this in the broader mortality perspective, poverty, says the study, has “…around twice the impact of all cancers combined.”

A recent report from the US demonstrates the growing extent of poverty in that country, too. According to the New York Times, the US food stamp program “…now helps feed one in eight Americans and one in four children.”  Over 36 million people use the program. Of course, the use is even greater in areas of chronic poverty:

“In more than 750 counties, the program helps feed one in three blacks. In more than 800 counties, it helps feed one in three children. In the Mississippi River cities of St. Louis, Memphis and New Orleans, half of the children or more receive food stamps. Even in Peoria, Ill. — Everytown, U.S.A. — nearly 40 percent of children receive aid.”  While usage rates are highest in the poorest counties, the fastest growth in the use of food stamps is in areas, once middle class, hit by the housing crisis.

This is not what democracy looks like.

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