Leaders out of touch with the poor




The issues that greatly affect the world’s poor and working poor as they struggle to gain ground must be contrasted with the sensibilities of the many political leaders the world over who have no experience in what it means to live in poverty. Grasping this socio-economic divide between leaders and the masses is essential to understanding the growing gap between the rich and poor in our society today.

Some, like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi or South Korea’s Lee Myung-bak, began their lives in conditions of poverty but by force of personality created so much distance between the lives they shaped and their humble beginning that they have lost touch with what it means to be poor in today’s world.

Leaders such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales are exceptions and because of this are regarded by members of the status quo with suspicion.

During the latter part of the past century, Canada was led by at least two prime ministers who hailed from humble roots, Conservative Brian Mulroney and Liberal Jean Chrétien, both of whom trained as lawyers – not a working-class occupation.

Despite that, Chrétien liked to portray himself as ‘the little guy from Shawinigan’ in his attempt to maintain the common touch. Yet, it was during Chrétien’s tenure that social programs and healthcare underwent restrictions that significantly affected those who would most benefit from such universal services, namely the poor and working class.

Politicians, people like Canada’s current prime minister for example, hail from middle and upper middleclass backgrounds for the most part. Even the still popular U.S. President Barrack Obama had to get past his Occidental and Harvard University training and spend time getting to know the hardscrabble life of residents of Chicago projects to gain some ‘street cred’, and he is still seen as someone who is too detached.

High-level political leaders have no idea of the reality that poor people face on a day-to-day basis, hence all the polling that has to substitute for personal understanding regarding issues that affect the poor.

So, if our politicians can’t relate, they will be out of touch with the existing needs of a growing number of Canadians who are watching their economic strength being sapped year over year. They will deal with these issues instead in abstract or as some kind of academic exercise.

The intersection of high earning professionals and the poorer masses is not out of the ordinary; in fact it is a very everyday. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers among other well-paid professionals interact with the poor on a daily basis. But these professionals are not charged with making policy decisions that affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor and needy.

How can we bring political decision makers to identify enough with poor and working-class people when such leaders’ own reality has little to do with how the masses really live? How can we get Parliament Hill to make the decisions that will result in real benefits for Lawrence Heights and Malvern? How can we get politicians to see people living on a low income not just as voters or constituents but also as equals?

Poor people have a monumental challenge to get politicians and policy makers to begin to design a program of action that reflects the real needs of this sector of society, not least because it continues to grow, as what used to be a robust middle-class is slipping into a crisis of poverty. We are now into an economic shift that has not been seen since the onset of the industrial revolution. Income and earning inequality is increasing at a staggering rate. Some heads of companies will earn more in one afternoon than a low-income worker is paid in an entire year. We keep hearing about the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots and much of that is a reflection of government policies that will not move to create better conditions for the vast majority of this nation’s people. Leading a nation has to be about more than getting the vote because, as it is today, the fabric of society is seriously fraying at the edges.

A note on Haiti…

Yesterday marked the first anniversary of the earthquake that shattered Port au Prince and its environs. So much has happened in Haiti since then yet not much has changed. Prime Minister Harper predicted it would take a decade to make Haiti a viable nation. Haiti needs a strong internal grassroots rejuvenation to have any hope of going forward, and a strong organizational system.

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