Neoliberalism: What a Difference a Theory Makes

This year’s State of the Inner City report examines the impact of neoliberalism on Employment and Income Assistance, housing, and second-chance education program policies in the inner city. The report will be released on December 14 at Thunderbird House; look here for more information.

As has been the case every year for the past seven years, our community partners set a clear direction for us to follow as we moved forward with this year’s State of the Inner City Report. In past years our partners were most interested in telling the positive stories while also pointing out where policies might be improved. But things took a bit of a different turn this year.

Although initially the focus for this year’s report was on education, at a second meeting the discussion moved us in a different direction. One participant raised concerns about the unreasonable expectations placed on community organizations. She described the devastation she sees around her that has resulted from growing poverty and inequality. She described what she believed to be a failure on the part of all levels of government to do what is necessary to resolve this problem.

The discussion became lively as other participants jumped in, affirming her frustration.

There was general consensus among this group that community-based organizations are doing all that they can do to support individuals and families in their communities. But they know that they cannot do it all.

They talked about their frustration with the lack of housing and governments’ refusal to increase income assistance rates. One participant pointed out the irony of the argument that uses rising costs as an excuse not to build new housing units, yet expects social-assistance recipients to find housing on budgets that have fallen far below market rates. She wondered, “Since the Province seems to think $285.00 is enough for rent, why don’t they just build more units and charge that amount?”

Another individual talked about the arbitrary manner in which EIA caseworkers make decisions about who they will allow to participate in training and for how long.

Many of the participants are long time inner-city residents and/or community workers who expressed concern that people seem to be worse off now than in past years. This year’s report puts participants’ problems and frustrations in the context of the theory behind the policies they struggle with: it looks at the effects of neoliberal economic policy on inner-city life.

As readers will see, neoliberal theory provides unreasonable answers to our participants’ reasonable questions. This result will no doubt be unsatisfying, but is inevitable given the flaws of the theory. What is even more frustrating is that governments around the world, including — to a certain extent — Manitoba have bought into this theory; what is encouraging is that civil society is beginning to ask why.

We hope that this year’s State of the Inner City report fuels the growing debate and encourages Manitobans to rethink the wisdom of relying on a theory that clearly does so much damage.

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