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‘Poverty’ is a problem for democracy – focusing on rights can help

Published on 28/10/2020

Reading the news these days, it’s easy to despair about the state of democracy. Discussions about voter suppression, conflicts of interest, or omnibus bills that quietly take away power from local governments are troubling. But the fact that we are talking about these issues is, arguably, a good sign. However, these discussions often miss a much bigger threat to our democracy – the failure to protect our economic and social rights.

Decent employment, access to housing, food and water, education, health, and an adequate standard of living – these are the economic and social rights that enable people to live with dignity and participate fully in society. Colloquially, we often talk about the lack of these rights as “poverty” – though this phrasing can lull us into thinking that the problem is money, rather than having access to the rights themselves.

When people cannot access their economic and social rights, they cannot fully participate in civic life. For example, access to housing is crucial for full participation in society. A stable home provides more than shelter. A stable home can help you to maintain employment, allow children to make friends and build relationships with teachers at their school, and give you the opportunity to get to know your neighbours. These all support participation in your community, and democratic participation more broadly.

Or take education as another example. Schools are conduits to future employment (and therefore wages), knowledge about how all of our social systems work, from health care to criminal justice, and a sense of belonging to society. But we know that, even before COVID-19, our school system has not been serving all students equally well.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these inequities. For example, when schools shifted online in emergency mode, many students lacked the devices or internet access to participate. Moreover, children living in cramped, crowded spaces might not have a quiet place to concentrate, nor parents who can afford to take time off from their essential-but-low-paid service job to help them navigate an entirely new way of doing school. These kinds of inequities permeate our public education system, and have a profound impact on future civic participation.

How can we get to a fully-functioning democracy where each person – not just people in some parts of society – is able to participate in a meaningful way?

For starters, we need to address the causes of poverty. While poverty is experienced by individuals, it is created by systems that fail to protect their rights to a decent standard of living. Supporting individuals and families is certainly necessary. But alone, it will not eliminate poverty.

To make real progress towards eliminating poverty, we need systems that support people in realizing their economic and social rights. We create our systems and we have the power to change them. We need to press our governments to do so.

One way that we can start enacting this change is to take a human rights approach to public policy. This means aiming for a society where people experience their rights in their daily lives. It means putting as many resources as we can towards this goal. It means setting clear targets and monitoring our progress. It means that when we fall short, people have a way that they can seek remedy and move our governments to do better.

This is not the way we are used to thinking about rights and democracy in Canada. We tend to focus on the kinds of issues that relate more directly to civil and political rights – fair elections, and transparent decision-making, for example. Unquestionably, these are vital components of democracy, and we should be concerned when these are threatened.

But democracy is about more than casting a vote on election day. And civil and political rights cannot be separated from economic and social rights. They are parts of a whole.

Only when each person can access the full suite of their human rights can we claim to have a true democracy.

Summary

How can we get to a fully-functioning democracy where each person – not just people in some parts of society – is able to participate in a meaningful way?

Topic(s)

Civic engagement, Human rights, Poverty