There’s this truthful line Johnny Depp recites from the movie Blow which I’m always reminded of whenever I think about my life and those around me. I always wonder how closely it fits with each person’s reality.
“Most people’s lives pass them by as they are making grand plans for them.”
“Eating, paying for health insurance, all the bills that normal people have — those don’t go away just because you don’t make a lot of money, those things all exist,” he says.
“I want to know how much the people make who say $15 is too much and minimum wage is livable, or how much they’ve ever made,” Laura says. “I’ve tried to have this discussion with people that I’m living off of $11 an hour and it’s barely livable only because I’m not having to pay my own rent, and they call me stupid because they say I should get a different job or manage my money better.”
“It feels like it’s keeping me from moving on in my life”
That last quote is the one I want you to focus on.
Opportunity for so many in this world isn’t just driven by the American ideal, that if you just work hard, pay your dues, you can rise up and develop a great life for yourself. For a small few, yes, this is a reality. But for the vast majority, think again. The 2019 College Admissions Scandal is a shiny example of what privilege can get you — access to a better life. They may have been caught, but there’s been many more who have not and will not.
Those quotes above come from a Vox column that came out this past Wednesday. It’s titled Life on the minimum wage. The feature is an expose into the lives of countless Americans who work and just want a chance at something better. But there’s a catch to it all, a truth they’ve come to accept so well. The world is a cruel place, with inequality and injustice all around. A plight lost amongst a sea of corruption and greed. They tolerate minimum wage because they have no choice. There’s an irony to this though, which is that their meagre livelihoods so often don’t start there in adulthood. They begin much, much earlier.
From The Tyee:
They are the kids who show up for school hungry, who wear clean clothes only when there is extra money. They’re the ones who don’t talk about weekend activities or visits with friends. They’re the ones who struggle to learn, not because they’re less able, but because they’re malnourished, haven’t had opportunities and find the whole school experience overwhelming and exclusionary.
We love a rags-to-riches story, the kid from a poor family who cashes in on an invention or launches a business. But the reality is usually rags to rags.
Childhood poverty is a lifelong curse. The largest factor in adult health, for example, is not whether you smoke, or exercise or even your genetics. It’s whether you lived in poverty as a child. Living in poverty as a child limits your educational opportunities and achievements, reduces your employment prospects and, as a result, limits the future for your children in turn, if you have any.
Those consequences don’t just affect the children’s lives. We all pay for the increased costs to the health-care system and other social supports and in the lost contributions of people who never had the chance to make the most of their abilities and interests.
But the economic benefits of improving life for children shouldn’t be the main factor in offering children being raised on assistance a fair life, not one of deprivation. This is a moral issue.
Imagine the lives of parents trying to deal with life on assistance. The fear, the guilt, the daily struggle, the knowledge that despite their best efforts their children were suffering.
Imagine the lives of those children, knowing they were falling behind before their lives had barely begun, knowing they were already marked by poverty, different from their peers in so many ways.
I’d like you to return to the quote at the top. “Most people’s lives pass them by as they’re making grand plans for them.”
Growing up in poverty has a profound affect not only on a child’s upbringing but also on their perceived scope of what they can achieve. I know this firsthand as I was a child of poverty. I grew up on welfare. We had limited means, access to opportunity and little to no food. What Paul Willcocks, the author of the above Tyee excerpt has detailed here is shown a glimpse of the sheer size of how this issue hurts us all, even if we don’t know it. It took me a long time to realize the magnitude of opportunity that lie before me in life and even though I’ve come out and done rather well, there are still days where I still struggle with the lingering effects of child poverty.
I remember vividly how ashamed I used to feel when I entered the first day of school each year, how each kid had grand stories of summer days up at camp or at the lake, both scenarios far out of my mother’s scope or ability to provide. They all had new clothes and even shinier new shoes. You felt left out, behind, and out of step. Trivial as these instances might feel now some 30 years later, over time, with subsequent moments pilling on top of each other, your worldview of what your possibilities are starts to form. You begin to believe it’s smaller than those of your peers.
Because you’ve had less opportunity, you’ve thus had less experience. In a world that’s vicious and uncompromising, any misstep can alter one’s course for a lifetime, hence the College Admissions Scandal. Those parents knew the gravity of excellence and were hell bent on doing whatever it took to give their children that proverbial leg up — even if it meant doing something illegal. They weighed the risk of being caught versus a possible lifetime of greater advancement for their children. We were appalled when news broke of their crimes, but I imagine many parents all around, who, put in that position might have done the same thing for their child. It’s this myopic view of our society which gets us at this point.
Quotes such as this one should not have to exist: “It feels like it’s keeping me from moving on in my life.”
Recently, the World Health Organization concluded, “Social injustice is killing people on a grand scale.”3 There is a rationale for taking action to improve the lives of those living in poverty. Social determinants and health inequalities pose a substantial challenge to health care systems around the world.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development stated, “Failure to tackle the poverty and exclusion facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, but it will also weigh heavily on countries’ capacity to sustain economic growth in years to come.”4
Poverty has been highlighted as the most important social determinant of child health in high-income countries.5–7 A recent United Nations Children’s Fund Report Card examined a children’s well-being index, looking at the average of 26 indicators across 5 dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviours and risks, and housing and environment.6 Canada’s overall rank was 17th of 29 wealthy developed nations.6 It ranked 15th in material well-being, 27th in health and safety, 14th in education, 16th in behaviours and risks, and 11th in housing and environment. League tables for each of these dimensions, and for each indicator within the dimension, measure and compare progress for children across these countries.
We also need to understand that children are often not in a position to speak out for themselves, and every child is therefore entitled to special protection under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The argument is not just about evidence underlying the interventions, or their cost-effectiveness; it is that making genuine effort to reduce child poverty is morally and legally the right thing to do.5,7
Minimum wage is just a symptom of our callous affinity for workers and what we deem them worthy of paying. The fact that a corporation isn’t beholden as a human entity but merely a board whose lone mission is shareholder value, bonuses and stock buybacks is appalling. The more we learn, the greater our ability to understand and empathize.
People’s lives shouldn’t pass them by because all they do is work to live. Wouldn’t you agree?