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Fear of Poverty Transportation billboard project

Poverty coalition tackles politics
Campaign tries to turn poor into a public concern
By Lorraine Locherty
(Herald writer)

A campaign is under way to make Calgary's poor a political force.

In an unusual coalition, artists, lawyers, social workers and other professionals are joining forces with welfare recipients, the homeless and the working poor to form the Calgary Poverty Focus Group.

The group began last fall as an experiment in political organizing and appears to be gathering momentum. Its latest campaign strategy, the result of a meeting with local artists, is a poster designed to make poverty a public issue.

The poster poses the question: "Is fear of poverty a form of political control?" and will be visible all over town for the next three weeks on city transit buses and the LRT. The poster was designed by local artists Mireille Perron and Paul Woodrow.

"We wanted to sensitize the public to the way fear-of losing a job, or of being punished by the system if you don't have a job- silences people," commented Marilyn Seelye, who belongs to the poverty group and to Syntax Arts Society.
About 105,000 Calgarians, or 16 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line, says Statistics Canada.

The number is worked out using National Council of Welfare's figures, which determine a minimum annual income of $14,145 is necessary for a single person to live adequately in a city the size of Calgary. The minimum income for a four-person family is $28,061.

In spite of their numbers, the poor have no effective way of lobbying city hall or other government agencies, commented focus group Kim Pate, who works for the John Howard Society.

Be wary of blaming 'exploiters'
David Trigueiro
Herald editorial writer
Herald, June 28 1991

An amorphous organization of conscience-stricken artists and do-gooders calling itself the Calgary Poverty Focus Group has introduced a revolutionary kind of game to liven bus and C-train travel in the city.

The Focus Group purchased space on the advertising strips running above the windows around the inside of buses and trains to display artistic posters posing provocative questions about the morose condition of society.

The current edition asks "Is the fear of poverty a form of political control?" Surrounding the words are stylized ../images of people engaged in wholesome social activities-dog walking, children playing-typical of mass advertising.

The anti poverty artists nonetheless, maintain the posters are works of genuine art, incorporating a message.

In artistic circles it's known as advocacy art, to distinguish itself from advertising.

Although it was designed initially to stimulate thought and discussion, the ultimate objective of the Focus Group goes far beyond intellectual-exercise games, to mass marches on Edmonton and Ottawa, demanding an immediate end to all poverty and exploitation.

Those are indeed noble objectives, made even more so by the impossibility of ever achieving them. Nonetheless, the vain pursuit of Utopia seems to be mans' fate and their advertising campaign does a great service to Calgary by stimulating thought on something larger than yourself while riding public transit.

While the general run of bus ads drive readers inward-are your clothes out of date?, you deserve a Caribbean holiday, have you tested for prostate, breast, colon cancer?-the Focus Group ad forces your thoughts outward, which is a substantial achievement in itself given the pensive nature of bus travel.

That's how it worked on me, anyway, and it was a refreshing experience. My first thought was that the advertisement posed what was essentially a dishonest question. Asking "Is the fear of poverty a form of political control?" implies a grand conspiracy by bankers, industrialists and their running-dog political lackies to keep workers poor and dependent.

This theory is as old as civilization despite the lack of any evidence to justify it. It sounds true, therefore in most peoples' minds, it must be true.

On the other hand, the theory appears just as true in reverse. If the Calgary Poverty Focus Group and like-minded organizations can set up a situation where the poor blame their condition on a faceless group of "exploiters," they have control of a strong political base.

Are the poor better off depending on a loose alliance of company directors for their food and shelter, or a politbureau of community activists? Most people wouldn't want anything to do with either; but when people are forced to choose, they invariably take their chances with the company men.

For one thing, the corporate conspiracy exists only in theory. Even in economies clearly dominated by a small number of large companies, people are free to opt out, and many do, without seriously compromising their living standards.

On the other hand, no one can doubt the extreme control over every aspect of human life exerted by government which have taken it upon themselves to create a society devoid of poverty.

OK, I accept there is a middle ground in countries like Sweden and, to some extent, Canada. Nonetheless, even in those so-called social democracies, the use of fear to control political actions is more prevalent than in laissez-faire economies.

Opposition to the Conservative government's free-trade agreement with the United States relied almost exclusively on convincing Canadians that they would lose social programs and be poorer as a result of the deal.

People fear most the things they cannot control.

If you believe it is wrong for politicians or anyone to exploit people's fear of poverty, the best way to prevent it is to increase their freedom to control their economic environment by reducing the power of the state.