The Inside Agenda Blog

Agenda Insight: Austerity and the Average Canadian

Friday February 17, 2012

During election campaigns, political leaders like to talk about "ordinary Canadians." They easily trot out the clichés about the struggles of Canadian families, single moms, immigrants, factory workers, and seniors. They create perfect photo ops using these various groups to show their devotion to helping them find jobs, get out of debt, make more money or pay fewer taxes.

Then, they get elected, and the vision of so many regular Canadians working hard to keep their lives on track disappears from their heads. They have real work to do. Fix the economy. Keep Toronto; Ontario; or Canada on track. Save money, balance budgets. Call in experts to trim the fat. But ordinary Canadians know that it all just means more financial struggle for them. More work for less money. Or, for many, no work at all.

I recently attended a brainstorming session for independent workers to come up with ideas and solutions for income and job security. We wanted to see if we could think up any ways to help our governments understand our precarious work situations and throw us a bone toward helping us.

Although this meeting was designed for indie workers, I was surprised to see many unemployed and underemployed people showing up. People just needed to vent. They wanted to tell their layoff stories; of lost benefits and pension plans; to air their job search frustrations. They were worried about aging out of their industries, about no longer earning a living wage. They talked about their descent into the realm of the working poor. It became apparent that many of us are hurting in this economy. And what a relief it was to be able to say that out loud to the kindred in the room.

More than one story I heard that night brought tears to my eyes, not just because of empathy for them, but because I could relate. My own struggle to earn a living came to a crisis point this past summer and, let me tell you, it’s not something you bring up easily over cocktails – that’s if you can even afford to leave your house! At the event, one man talked about how the U.S. housing decline had ruined his lumber industry business. A woman who’d raised a family on a minimum retail wage talked about not having enough money or energy left at the end of each week. Another discussed her downward spiral from successful real estate broker to welfare recipient. These tales of woe aren’t just happening in pockets of underprivileged communities in Canada. The shrinking middle class was on full display in the packed room. People are shocked to find themselves visiting social service offices, filling out EI claims, and wringing their hands trying to figure out ways to move forward. But it’s hard to look for work when you feel demoralized, disenfranchised, and redundant.

I left feeling better about my situation; and worse for us all.

As I hear details of the Drummond Report, I think about that room full of people worrying about their futures. It’s hard to get behind so-called austerity measures when so many people are hurting. Yes, we need to cut deficits and find efficiencies. But we also need to keep ourselves afloat and healthy. Our country is made up of people after all; average Canadians who are required to keep it going.

For The Agenda with Steve Paikin, I’m Carla Lucchetta.