A critical review by Othmar F. Arnold
(All mentioned documents are linked directly to the original source.)
The preamble to the new strategy document outlines very nicely what a better Yukon for all means: “A socially inclusive society is one where all people feel valued, their differences are respected, and their basic needs are met so they can live with dignity. It is a society where everyone has the opportunity to participate and to have their voice heard.’ (p. 8) And it continues with deep insight about social exclusion: it “is the result of barriers in the social, economic, political and cultural systems” (p. 8).
In the introduction, the scope of the strategy is presented as a guideline to social policy development; or in other words, how government will facilitate a way of meaningfully living together. From the research the government conducted, it concluded that service delivery and access to services appear the main reasons for the fact that some people in the Yukon do not feel included. Furthermore, “poverty is one of the most obvious factors contributing to social exclusion, but social exclusion also stems from and is exacerbated by inadequate education, housing, health, social participation, employment and access to services (p. 8)”.
The development of the strategy included a variety of stakeholders. The lead was within the Department of Health and Social Services, but an Interdepartmental Steering Committee ensured that the voices of other government departments were included as well. Externally, the government invited select members of the non-governmental sector and First Nations governments to represent civil society on a Community Advisory Committee.
The voices of people that feel excluded in the Yukon were sought through research. Both the 2010 Whitehorse Housing Adequacy Study and the Bridges and Barriers 2010 report aimed at capturing a look at the margins of society, one through a survey conducted with questionnaires, the other one through workshops and a symposium where a forum was set to share personal stories and experiences with poverty and social exclusion.
Furthermore, the Yukon Bureau of Statistics crunched some numbers to provide a current snapshot of a set of indicators of social exclusion. In the strategy document, indicators of employment rates, income distribution, cost of housing, educational achievements, and life expectancy are presented. Some of the indicators focus on ethnic origin and gender as categories to show existing disparities.
The key findings from the research identify access to services, housing, transportation, literacy, service delivery, and support networks as the priorities in strategy development. Research also identifies population groups in the Yukon that are at increased risk of being on the margins of society.
From the preparatory work, the three goals of the strategy are defined:
- improving access to services,
- reducing inequities, and
- strengthening community vitality
The vision of eliminating social exclusion and poverty is presented together with guiding principles for government action to achieve its goals and move towards that vision.
The remainder of the document is dedicated to describe a set of objectives for each goal. Grouped under these objectives is a list describing current government initiatives as well as related success stories from the recent past.
At the end, the government provides an outline for moving forward. It promises the establishment of a steering committee, ongoing monitoring and evaluation, as well as a continued effort to hear the diverse community voices. None of these promises for implementation of the strategy have a timeline or other specifics attached.
Looking for the essence
To me, this all sounds like I just read a high level declaration to instruct a government apparatus to develop new and to examine existing policies and programs “by viewing [them] through a socially inclusive lens” (p. 7). The bulk of the 35-page strategy is similar to a platform document, pointing to the multitude of programs that exist related to the various objectives stated in the strategy.
It lacks a review of the current government programs and services for naming the existing barriers that can lead to exclusion. How can government improve its policies and programs if it doesn’t know what the specific barriers to social inclusion within the political system are?
Government is the political system that represents the people of a society in matters of collective concern. It develops, maintains, and enforces the legal framework that governs society within its jurisdiction. It administers programs and services when the need arises among citizens. It regulates the economic system for the common good. As a representative body of the population, it reflects the values and customs of the cultural systems among its people.
Two of the goals can be easily correlated to the baseline information in the document: The key findings of research speak about improving access to services, and specify transportation due to Yukon’s geography and literacy as concrete barriers. There is little that can be done about the territory’s geography and the associated transportation challenges other than decentralizing services to serve people outside of the capital. That thought is not reflected in the goals or objectives of this strategy.
Likewise, strengthening community vitality flows from the finding that “having support networks [ ] makes a difference for people who are struggling” (p. 15). The social, cultural, economic, political, and spiritual conditions as a whole are what facilitates community vitality. Meaninglessness, a paternalistic government rule, financial hardship and insecurity will affect the cultural expression and the social cohesiveness – thus reducing community vitality. The key findings paint a picture of a significant disconnect between people and the government that is provider of many services in this territory. The findings can equally be seen as an expression of people who have become dependent on government services for all their need. In both ways, the goal of strengthening community will reduce the negative impact and help build a better Yukon.
On the other hand, the goal of reducing inequities comes as a surprise. There is no reference to a lack of fairness or justice, the classic definition of inequity, in government programs or policies in the entire strategy. The term is introduced in mid-document and remains stand-alone in this one section.
The description of the second goal on page 22 provides some context, but is rather confusing: The government squarely puts the responsibility on the individual to reduce inequities: In a circular argument, the government “aims to reduce inequities by equipping individuals with the education, skills, resources, housing, social support and experiences they need to realize their potential and reduce disparities.” These tools will help Yukoners to overcome the barriers they experience and that make them feel excluded. Is this not a form of blaming the victim?
Blaming the victim
If I understand the strategy paper correctly, social exclusion “is the result of barriers in the social, economic, political and cultural systems.” (p. 8), and not of personal attributes. The intent for developing the strategy is to guide government decision-making, actions, and behaviours. If any of the government’s decision-making processes, actions, or behaviours are creating inequities, it would be indeed the logical goal of this strategy to eliminate them within the bureaucracy.
Maybe the government is seeking to reduce disparities. They do exist and some of them are well documented. For example inequality of income distribution, where some Yukoners live with an income that is not meeting their needs, and others make a lot more than the average need. Or, single mothers live more precariously than single fathers. Insufficient income leads to poverty, which can lead to social exclusion.
But inadequate income and lack of employment are not mentioned among the key findings as priority factors that feed into social exclusion and poverty for Yukoners.
Nonetheless, the first objective under the goal of reducing inequities is to “create opportunities to improve income by reducing barriers to employment”. The listed initiatives address barriers to income such as education and skills development. The research as presented in this document does not indicate a perceived need in these areas. Nor does it speak about the adequacy of minimum wage or low-income employment to meet people’s needs.
The next objective is to “strengthen supports and access to necessities for those in most need”. This is clearly an objective of access to services, as indicated by the listed initiatives: Social assistance programs are designed mitigate the catastrophic effects of income disparities, they do not reduce them. Income disparities are reduced by distribution of income, for example through a Guaranteed Annual Income, or a correction to the commodification of labour, when people are paid a living wage that meets their needs and not according to an ascribed status or market value.
Ironically, it is the MINCOME experiment of the 1970 that has been abandoned by provincial and federal government funders and whose results have been largely unstudied and unpublished that is the only scientific evidence that supports some of the claims that are essential to this strategy: People worked more, became better educated, were healthier, and created more vital communities as a result of this basic income project. It also reduced the need for program administration and service delivery.
The third objective deals with homelessness and housing. This is the one point in this document that contains an implicit element of inequity. A three- to four-fold increase of the cost of housing in the same time period as the average wage increase was twenty percent is indeed unfair and unjust. However, to correct such a market mechanism is beyond the power of social policy by the Yukon Government.
And so it goes on: I have a hard time conceptualizing how healthy and safe lifestyle choices reduce inequities or disparities of any kind. The better fit for that objective is under the goal of strengthening community vitality.
I can see how the Interdepartmental Steering Committee has set itself up for a confusing strategy document. While social inclusion and exclusion are explicitly defined in the strategy paper, poverty is not addressed in the same way.
The Minister’s message indicates “poverty [a]s a complex problem with many overlapping factors and systemic barriers” (p. 3). The reader is told that poverty is “one of the most obvious factors contributing to social exclusion, but it is also exacerbated by inadequate education, low literacy levels, inadequate housing, poor health, limited social participation, inadequate employment and barriers to services” (p.4). Finally on page 22 there is an acknowledgment that employment is a major factor in poverty.
To use the term “poverty”, which is central to this strategy, on 26 pages of the document without explaining it, can be seen as an indicator of avoidance or denial.
In order to address this complex, systematic barrier to social inclusion, it is essential to define how government sees, understands, and measures poverty.
For most who experience it, it is an economic inability to meet the daily needs for meaningful participation in contemporary society. It can range from deprivation of basic human needs to the inability to keep up with societal expectations. Its causes are also found on a broad spectrum, from inadequate income and social supports to individual behavioural factors.
I cannot see how the Yukon Government can possibly reduce poverty, unless it spells out exactly which aspects of poverty it aims at reducing. This strategy has plenty of hidden references to individual personal deficiencies (some Yukoners are unskilled, illiterate, undereducated, non-attending, reoffending, non-participating, addicted, people making unhealthy and unsafe choices, etc.) framed as the necessary starting point for reducing poverty in this strategy.
This moralizing and exclusionary undertone by the government is not consistent with the aims of this strategy to eliminate social exclusion and poverty, and to have all citizens participate free from prejudice and discrimination. Human beings are not reducible to willing adherents of a flexible workforce and marketplace.
The government’s strategy for poverty reduction needs to include consideration whether our economic and political systems, not just the programs and services, are inviting for people to participate in meaningfully. In such a scenario, the people that are technically represented by the government will find it much easier to access services to meet their needs and feel included!
I find it unfortunate and excessive to write a 35-page strategy, commission several research reports, have a multi-year process of interdepartmental steering committees, a dedicated office, and community consultation and participation to state the intent from government to develop new and to examine existing social policies and programs by viewing them through a socially inclusive lens.
Thank you to the Premier for spelling out a vision. Yukoners will embrace political, economic, and social systems that are meaningful and foster a culture of inclusion and social justice. Please go ahead and review all government programs and policies to make them more inclusive, to reduce barriers to services, and to strengthen the social safety net that is one of the reasons for the existence and necessity of government.
For more on this issue, please see my previous blog post: A Better Yukon for All.