Did you catch the sporting event of the year on Sunday? The event that every participant had been in ‘training’ for all their lives. No it wasn’t the African Cup of Nations or even the Super Bowl. It was the world’s first Poverty Olympics held in Vancouver. Here participants were invited to take part in events such as the welfare hurdles and the poverty line high jump and were supported by mascots such as Itchy the Bedbug and Creepy the Cockroach.
However, behind the rather amusing fascade lies a very serious message. The event was organised by the Poverty Olympics Organizing Committee — a group of citizens and community organisations campaigning against increased levels of poverty (in a city that has just been voted as the world’s most ‘liveable’ by the UN). In 2010 Vancouver is to host the Winter Olympics. At the time of the bid promises were made that the Olympics would leave a positive legacy for all of Vancouver’s residents. This included building more social housing, reducing homelessness, and making sure poor people weren’t displaced by Olympics-driven development. However, at the same time the British Columbia Government cut social housing spending and social assistance was made increasingly difficult to obtain.
The aim of the Poverty Olympics was to highlight the growing social inequalities in the city as well as the plight of the poor in what is one of the world’s most affluent cities. The event focussed particularly on those living in Downtown Eastside — the city’s poorest neighbourhood — which was singled out last year by the United Nations Population Fund as a sign of ‘trouble in paradise’ where (the HIV rate is 30% — the same as Botswana’s). Homelessness in Vancouver doubled between 2002 and 2005. And levels of child poverty are the highest in Canada.
The Poverty Olympics Organizing Committee argues that the cost of reducing poverty in Vancouver would be around $1.34 billion. This includes building more social housing, increasing welfare entitlements and ending barriers to welfare. Sounds a lot our thinking. But this amount pales into insignificance when compared to the more than $4.5 billion that has been spent on the Winter Olympics (and the provincial and federal budget surpluses for 2006/07 — of $4 billion and $14 billion respectively). This is money that they could spend but haven’t.
For Vancouver’s rich the city may well be the most ‘liveable’ in the world. But its inner city poor tell a different story. For them Vancouver represents poor housing, poor services, low life expectancy and the failure of local and national government to provide the basic means of subsistence. Hopefully the campaign will go some way to highlighting the poverty amidst plenty which continues to exist, and is indeed increasing, in many of the world’s most affluent cities — and not just in Vancouver. London 2012 take note!!
To read more about Vancouver’s poverty and the campaign against the city’s uneven economic development and rising social inequalities see http://povertyolympics.ca/