In 2006 the Nobel peace Prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus for his efforts to eradicate poverty in the poorest regions of our world. His work with micro-credit is well-known and he understands well the challenges of societies where poverty is unaddressed. Yunus insists that “Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.” I read this quote of his in a book entitled What Makes Great leaders Great written by Frank Arnold.  Yesterday I was reading a chapter in that book ‘Commit Yourself to More than Your own Wellbeing.’

With those words fresh in my mind I reflect here on the week that was politically in the province of Ontario:

We have had the ‘great pleasure’ of having a provincial and a federal budget rolled out for us this week.  I had opportunity to sit under a blanket and listen to endless analysis of the Federal budget yesterday – it further aggravated a headache that I already have. Thankfully on Tuesday I was unable to listen to all of the prognosticators drone on about what all of this ‘will mean.’  

Let me preface what I am about to share with these words:

These budget exercises are no doubt difficult for the governments involved and I would hope that the decisions that drive them are not taken lightly. I understand the value of ‘a tax break,’ or the need for ‘belt tightening’ in difficult times.  All that being said, here comes the but….

There are a couple of key things that leapt out for me this week in both these budgets that trouble me.

The first came on Tuesday when the McGuinty Liberals froze social assistance benefits. The Ontario budget must get to balance our local MPP and Minister of Finance, Dwight Duncan tells us. And I ask, why is it being balanced on the backs of those who can afford it the least? Last year I was part of a group that took part in the ‘Do the Math Challenge.’ I lived on food bank rations for a week. A single person on social assistance in the province of Ontario receives $572 per month.  We were seeking a ‘healthy food supplement’ of $100 per month to help provide a better standard of living for the poorest among us. The McGuinty government is being very short-sighted. As Yunus rightly points out, the hope for any real stable peace in our communities rests squarely on finding opportunities for people to have dignity. The cost on the other side of poverty far outbalance the costs of providing a better standard of living for the poorest among us. This jab was followed by a right cross announcing that the planned increase to the Ontario Child Benefit was also being delayed. Ontario Campaign 2000 reports that 1 in 7 children in Ontario still live in poverty. That amounts to just under 400 000 youngsters. All of this while the provinces has maintained planned tax cuts for corporations.  How can we not see the cost of keeping people in poverty?

The second blow came from the Federal Budget. The Harper Conservatives have rolled out a plan to increase the age of eligibility for Old Age Security from 65 to 67. It is set to begin in 2023. So if you are under the age of 54 today, it is you this change will affect the most. Here again we see cost savings on the back of the poorest of our seniors. Here again, this is sold on the logic that we must balance a budget and this is one of the few ways that we can get there. I was pleased to see that the Harper government is also making changes to the most lucrative pension plan in the country – the MPs Pension plan, but I am cynical about the fact that none of those changes will take place till after this parliament. One of the sad realities that I face in ministry is that many of our seniors are working to make ends meet. Many that are not have to make choices that are difficult in their monthly expenditures.  Many seniors live below the poverty line today. Can we see this getting better in the foreseeable future? Never mind that people are fixated on the increased age eligibility for OAS, I am wondering why there is not something the budget to help the plight of seniors today?  

Neither of these budgets is overly controversial.  Nor does either do much but try to offer the appearance of fiscal prudence. But sadly, the fact remains that we are not being fiscally prudent when we make no effort to address poverty in our communities. What worries me is not in the black and white of the numbers used in these budgets. What troubles me is where money is spent and where it is cut or where it is not spent. Consider our own budgets – they will tell a story about where our priorities lie. So it is with each of these budgets.

As a people of God we are called to remember that Jesus offered this:

‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
“Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?
“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
  “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

We might agree with many of the measures in both or either of these budgets. At the same time, as a people of God, we must be concerned about the greater costs of not addressing poverty. So let us speak if we can – Speak to your MPP and speak to your MP, Write letters to the Ministers of Finance. Let them know how you feel. Praise and congratulate them for what is right and good. Take the opportunity at the same time to let them know what Christ compels you to say about the poor. In the meantime let us act. We can find a multitude of ways to contribute our time and energy to bring dignity to those who live in poverty.

I did have a very simple idea after hearing the budget yesterday. I was pleased to see the end of the penny as we know they cost more to produce than they are worth. Production will cease in the Fall of this year. I wondered if instead of cancelling, what if the government had recalled all of those pennies that are in circulation and applied those monies to programs to address poverty. That is not in the works for government – but what is stopping us? The work of our Downtown Mission was highlighted here at St. Mark’s during our Lenten Justice Series by Ron Dunn. I would like to invite us all to bring all the jars and bags of pennies that we have lying around to St. Mark’s by-the-Lake. There will be a LARGE container at the church to collect all of those pennies. When it is FULL we will contribute to the work of those who are trying to give dignity to those who live with little. The penny may be worthless in some circles but a BIG container full will be worth a great deal to the Downtown Mission.  Let’s see if we can collect enough to call in the strongest people we know to lift those containers and deliver them to the Mission.

If you have other coins you would like to drop in this BIG container – that would be ok too!