Belonging

Personal Grooming and a Living Wage

Grooming and personal appearance can be expensive to look after, and a parent earning minimum wage who wants to send a child out into the world looking and feeling his or her best may find that it isn't affordable.

By Michelle Martin
Published January 03, 2012

Chesterton wrote the following paragraph in conclusion to an argument against an unnamed public official who had suggested cutting the hair off of poor children in order to combat head-lice, a plan he rightly accused of being ass-backwards. We will forgive him his early twentieth century lack of political correctness and substitute the word parents for mother.

I begin with a little girl's hair. That I know is a good thing at any rate. Whatever else is evil, the pride of a good mother in the beauty of her daughter is good. It is one of those adamantine tendernesses which are the touchstones of every age and race. If other things are against it, other things must go down. If landlords and laws and sciences are against it, landlords and laws and sciences must go down. With the red hair of one she-urchin in the gutter I will set fire to all modern civilization. Because a girl should have long hair, she should have clean hair; because she should have clean hair, she should not have an unclean home: because she should not have an unclean home, she should have a free and leisured mother; because she should have a free mother, she should not have an usurious landlord; because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution. That little urchin with the gold-red hair, whom I have just watched toddling past my house, she shall not be lopped and lamed and altered; her hair shall not be cut short like a convict's; no, all the kingdoms of the earth shall be hacked about and mutilated to suit her. She is the human and sacred image; all around her the social fabric shall sway and split and fall; the pillars of society shall be shaken, and the roofs of ages come rushing down, and not one hair of her head shall be harmed.

— G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong with the World

Head lice are no longer the exclusive lot of poorer children. With public education, lice have become much more democratic: two kindergarteners, from very different neighbourhoods, leaning over a picture book together with their heads touching can pass the insects back and forth easily in any classroom, as can preteens enjoying a comic book together at summer camp in the Muskokas.

Eradicating it easily, however, may be a different story, depending on one's income: lice shampoo costs just under $40 a bottle for the generic brand. Two treatments are required, seven to ten days apart. If you need to treat two or three children, then you are looking at $80 - $120 to get rid of the critters, never mind re-infestation if the school is having a bad year with outbreaks.

Shampooing is just the start: it does not kill nits (the eggs that are laid by lice). These need to be combed or pulled off of individual strands of hair, which means hours and hours of work, even if there aren't that many nits overall. Every hair needs to be checked, just in case. If you don't want to be bothered with nit-picking, you can hire someone who will do it for $50 an hour.

Fortunately, we live in more enlightened times where head lice are concerned. Children aren't banished from school for having nits, because we now know that lice do not carry disease. Families in Hamilton can access both the treatment shampoo and help with combing nits at a clinic run by the Public Health Department. Those on a fixed or low income can get assistance, then, with one aspect of childhood grooming.

Grooming and personal appearance can be expensive to look after, and a parent earning minimum wage who, quite rightly, wants to send a child out into the world looking and feeling his or her best may find that it isn't affordable to do so. No free clinics exist that will help with basic skin or hair care, and often a bargain shampoo or soap is just not going to do the trick.

Let's say dandruff is the problem: just buying medicated shampoo from a drugstore is going to cost enough, never mind making your purchase at a high-end salon or spa. Dry, cracked skin?

Again, a simple drug-store solution designed for someone who is also sensitive to scent can be beyond the monthly budget of many who could only dream of going shopping at a department store cosmetics counter.

Grooming issues like these typically make their appearance at the onset of puberty, when hormones wreak havoc on scalps and faces. Acne is a normal complaint, and used to be a bit of a leveler, as it has no respect for social class or income level. The science of skin care has made great leaps, however.

In our scientifically advanced era, those who suffer from mild to moderate blemishes and who have a bit of money to spend can find a great deal of relief at the drugstore, as well as specially blended cosmetics to cover up pimples that have not yet disappeared. Those who don't have the money to spend have to tough it out the way everyone did in the bad old days.

If the acne is moderate to severe, the option of powerful and effective prescriptions exist for those who have a drug plan and who can also afford the attendant expenses of special moisturizers, lip balms and even eye drops to relieve the dryness that comes with a course of Accutane.

You can argue that a teenager who needs to spend the extra cash to keep her- or himself comfortable and eczema-, dandruff- or acne-free should just go get a part-time job. I might argue that too, except for an anecdote that was recounted to me last year. Someone I know, who works waiting tables at a franchised restaurant, overheard an exchange between the owner and the manager that went something like this:

"What did you take her resume for?"

"She just dropped it off."

"I've already told you we need to improve the appearances of the waitresses here. Don't give her an interview."

Clearly, enlightenment among employers has not grown at the same rate as the science of dermatology.

These are not frivolous concerns for a parent. They are reasonable ones, and any discussion of a living wage needs to take into consideration a monthly amount to be spent on grooming that covers more than just cast-off hotel soaps from vacationing boomers, cheap shampoo, dollar store body lotion, and cheap razors.

Chesterton began with a little girl's hair. We can just as easily begin with a little boy's hair, or a teenager's complexion.

Michelle Martin and her husband are watching their ten children reach adulthood one by one in Hamilton, where they relocated from Toronto 13 years ago. She has been published in both the Hamilton Spectator and Raise the Hammer, as well as in the online edition of the National Post. Michelle has worked in the developmental services sector for many years, most recently as coordinator of the Community Access to Transportation project. However, the opinions she expresses in Raise the Hammer are her own. She sometimes tweets @deltawestmom

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By Anne Marie Pavlov (anonymous) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 10:58:20

Thank you for posting that, Michelle. This is a social justice issue that is near and dear to my heart. I cut hair at the Living Rock once a month (community outreach centre for street involved youth on Wilson & Hughson Streets) when they host a "Wellness Night" (sometimes we call it "Spa Night") where the kids can get their hair done using "Rock Bucks" that they have earned doing jobs around the centre. It is precisely this issue that we are trying to address. I do my very best to give them a real spa experience, attention, consultation, and a very nice haircut that will help raise their self esteem and confidence even a little bit. And I think a spinoff benefit is that these kids feel more keen to apply for a job or ask for better treatment from society, by carrying their heads just a little bit higher. I am always on the lookout for donations of nice shampoos, conditioners, razors, etc. RTH readers, feel free to conatct me at cajunblues@gmail.com if you have any products you would like to share!!! I provide free labour, but I do need product.

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By Borrelli (registered) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 12:12:10

Great article on a touchy subject, Michelle, and the Chesterton quote is fantastic.

We can also thank our keen and impeccably moral advertisers for hammering our self-esteem for the past half century in order to construct the impression that buying new and expensive (while not always functional) "health and beauty" supplies is a requirement of participating in civic life.

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By gullchasedship (registered) - website | Posted January 03, 2012 at 13:49:16

You have a good a point here generally about how health issues affect the poor more than the rich.

But you don't need to remove the nits. Just shampoo twice 9-10 days apart to break the cycle.

Comment edited by gullchasedship on 2012-01-03 13:55:15

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By RB (registered) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 14:36:01

Huh... this is something I've never thought about... great eye-opener, Michelle.

My daughter had lice once, and the GF just combed it out with a lice comb & used lice shampoo for a few days, and all was well. I have no idea how much it cost.

She would nit-pick for about 1-2hrs every night for a week... pain in the ass, but it worked.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 03, 2012 at 15:49:56

I, too, love that Chesterton quote. Worth noting, though, that this was standard practice with native kids in Canada at the time.

As for the links between "personal grooming" and poverty, it needs to be separated into issues of hygeine/sanitation and aesthetics. Class-based aesthetic preferences play a really big role here, and there's only so much which can (or should) be done to help people to conform to them. Power-suits and overpriced cosmetics are about social status. If everyone got them for free, people would simply shift to some other indicator of status and privilege, just like kids in high schools that implement uniform policies. The sanitation, issues, on the other hand, have to be available to everyone, or else nobody's really safe. Whether it's lice, bedbugs, mice/rats, infectious diseases or fire hazards, they're just too contagious, and elitist social prejudices don't do a whole lot to limit their spread.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 19:51:16 in reply to Comment 72689

Whether it's lice, bedbugs, mice/rats, infectious diseases or fire hazards, they're just too contagious, and elitist social prejudices don't do a whole lot to limit their spread.

I beg to differ: shame is a great motivator and we do harm be marking shame a modern form of evil. What I might not do (or do quickly) for its intrinsic value to me I very often do lest I bring shame upon myself or my family or my community.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-01-05 19:52:51

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 04, 2012 at 19:31:12 in reply to Comment 72689

Thanks for the comment, Undustrial, you always have an interesting take on things. I do agree with your point about class-based aesthetics (and hey- on that note, did you all read about the plastic surgery coverage for one hospital CEO?).

I think there are some aspects of personal grooming, though, that move out of aesthetics and while not coming under hygiene or sanitation definitely come under the category of personal comfort/discomfort to the point where they can interfere with daily life and functioning. I think that a lot of skin complaints which can affect outward appearance also fall under this category, and concern about them is not a superficial thing or an artificial construct. I think that anyone who has suffered from very dry, cracked skin (preventable with store-bought lotions designed to combat it), for example, would attest to this.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2012-01-04 19:51:38

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 11:46:12 in reply to Comment 72726

I can deeply sympathize. If my acne had been much worse as a teenager, I might have needed a perscription. Believe me, it's physically painful. There's social consequences, too, since people tend to make the best assumptions about 'good looking' people, and much less kind assumptions about everyone else. This is a serious matter of privilege, and it can affect any area of your life.

What worries me about things like CEO plastic surgery coverage is the standard they set. Not only does it normalize a "perfect" appearance within elite circles, but also strengthens the associations between any kind of "abnormality" and social exclusion.

Think about what dental benefits have done to the smiles of different economic classes. Not only are "bad teeth" often a consequence of being poor (often quite a serious one), but they've also taken on additional risks because of what they show about your 'background'.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 21:30:01 in reply to Comment 72744

"If my acne had been much worse as a teenager, I might have needed a perscription. Believe me, it's physically painful."

I hear ya-- i think people forget that, that it actually hurts

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2012-01-05 21:59:12

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 12:03:35 in reply to Comment 72744

Not only are "bad teeth" often a consequence of being poor (often quite a serious one), but they've also taken on additional risks because of what they show about your 'background'.

Not just that: 'bad teeth' are a routeway to cardiac problems; gum and tooth infections can allow bacteria into the bloodstream and therefore allow poisons into the heart. My mom had to have a bad tooth out to prevent this from exacerbating her situation, but chances are that her need for a valve replacement was precipitated by an earlier tooth problem.

So if we're looking at increased morbidity and mortality rates amongst the poor, it behooves us to consider dental care a lot more pro-actively.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 19:55:33 in reply to Comment 72745

So if we're looking at increased morbidity and mortality rates amongst the poor, it behooves us to consider dental care a lot more pro-actively.

Uhm ... I'm pretty sure that the provincial government has covered dental care for those without private insurance for ages now.

Healthy Smiles Ontario is a program for children 17 and under who do not have access to any form of dental coverage. If eligible, your children will get regular dental services at no cost to you.

http://www.health.gov.on.ca/en/public/pr...

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By mystoneycreek (registered) - website | Posted January 06, 2012 at 07:08:06 in reply to Comment 72753

Uhm ... I'm pretty sure that the provincial government has covered dental care for those without private insurance for ages now.

They undoubtedly have. However, that doesn't mean what I've referred to has been acknowledged as the risk factor that it is.

And frankly, I somehow doubt that someone who is in a place of poverty has dental care front-and-centre in their day-to-day. I know for a fact that most people over the age of 55 have no idea that not taking care of your teeth can have such a calamitous impact on your general health. Neither of my parents did, and they're neither impoverished nor dumb-bunnies.

But then, we do live in a society of smokers and over-eaters and sedentary life-stylers...

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 20:48:53 in reply to Comment 72753

Doesn't look like most orthodontic work is covered, and that is definitely a divider between those who have good private insurance coverage (the expense is still considerable even with the typical 50% coverage-- I speak from experience) and those who do not.

Does anyone here know about a source of funding/assistance for those who need coverage to access orthodontic care?

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2012-01-05 20:49:19

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By liceDoesntNeedToAffectANYONEanymore (anonymous) | Posted January 03, 2012 at 16:55:37

Have you heard of the Lousebuster? It is being used in schools in california, and it dehydrates the lice and eggs in a half hour. schools are purchasing the machine to use in school, so no children, rich or poor, go without treatment. It's even FDA cleared. Every school nurse should have access. lousebuster dot come

this was a great article about a social injustice. I actually liked at the beginning the mans use of "mother" though. It might not be politically correct, but the comparison/relationship between daughter and mother was needed for a deeper emotional effect and understanding of what he was trying to say.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 04, 2012 at 10:16:29

OT, but thanks for the link to the National Post article in your bio. Some of the best commentary I've seen on the issue.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted January 04, 2012 at 11:43:07 in reply to Comment 72709

Yesterday, I read a remarkable quote that happened to be in an article on the Finnish school system:

Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.

As much as I wish more Catholic priests followed Michelle Martin's advice to conceive their role in the context of parenthood, such an approach would require them to see themselves as fundamentally responsible for their conduct. Clearly, a number of priests did not so regard themselves.

In the absence of that deep personal responsibility, accountability would have acted as a secondary safeguard for at least those children who were abused after the first cases came to light. But tragically, farcically, the organization of the Church chose instead to close ranks around its abusive members and redeploy them instead of removing them.

When the personal stakes are as high as they are for priests with intimate access to vulnerable children, it's just not good enough to trust in personal responsibility. Even where accountability is present - and it was emphatically not present in the Church - it comes too late to protect the first victims.

Instead, we can take a cue from high reliability organizations for which the cost of failure is catastrophic and intolerable. HROs avoid failure through intense, systematic dedication to five concepts:

  1. Maintaining situational awareness and communicating openly throughout operations;

  2. Imagining and seeking potential causes of failure, and treating each near miss as a valuable opportunity to fix problems;

  3. Responding quickly and effectively to problems as soon as they emerge, so they do not escalate into full-blown catastrophes;

  4. Deferring to expertise and proven best practices, not to hierarchical authority; and

  5. Avoiding oversimplification of complex problems with deceptively simple solutions.

I see nothing in the Catholic Church's various responses - in either communication or organization - to the child abuse scandal to suggest they have really internalized this lesson. To this day, the Church's primary organizational imperative remains damage control and self-preservation.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted January 05, 2012 at 11:39:41 in reply to Comment 72713

As much as I wish more Catholic priests followed Michelle Martin's advice to conceive their role in the context of parenthood, such an approach would require them to see themselves as fundamentally responsible for their conduct. Clearly, a number of priests did not so regard themselves.

In the absence of that deep personal responsibility, accountability would have acted as a secondary safeguard for at least those children who were abused after the first cases came to light. But tragically, farcically, the organization of the Church chose instead to close ranks around its abusive members and redeploy them instead of removing them.

MSC, but I believe the cultural shift Michelle proposes addresses both personal responsibility and accountability. But first I think we need to recognize the reason why the Church has been fundamentally incapable of valuing the vocation of parenthood sufficiently: even in our secular society, parenthood is still virtually synonymous with motherhood, and in the traditional family model idealized by the church, even moreso.

The nurturing and empathy that we associate with parenthood were until very recently the exclusive purview of women, and are consequently devalued by male hierarchies.

It isn't so much that certain members of the clergy didn't see themselves as responsible for their own conduct, but rather that they didn't view their responsibilities in the way that women/parents do; that is putting the welfare of your vulnerable dependants ahead of your own.

Likewise, it wasn't so much a lack of structural accountability on the part of the church that caused it to close ranks, but rather the church's distorted view (like that of any male hierarchy) of who it was accountable to, ie. the hierarchy itself. The sacrifice of innocents is just the cost of doing business in these types of cultures.

Asking the church therefore, to place a higher value on the parental vocation has the potential to change both personal responsibility and institutional accountability, but alas, as long as the nurturing, self-sacrificing aspects of parenthood, as opposed to the teaching/guiding aspects, are viewed as 'womanly', I'm afraid it will be an uphill battle.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 19:58:17

Michelle,

You quote Chesterton saying "because there should not be an usurious landlord, there should be a redistribution of property; because there should be a redistribution of property, there shall be a revolution."

You mentioned that you disagreed with his odious assumption that mother's would be tending their daughter's grooming. What about the necessary revolution and the redistribution of property? Or are we taking that as more-or-less already having happened?

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 21:02:55 in reply to Comment 72754

Well, I don't think his assumption is odious- just a product of the times in which he lived, and I find myself in agreement with an earlier commenter that it does help him, quite poetically, get to the heart of the point he is trying to make. That being said, in my house I and my husband share the responsibility - though, to be honest, I am the one that concerns myself with the state of everyone's hair, which may be a function of roles we have been socialized to assume, or may be a function of our personalities...not something I care about-- we all get along fine and everyone pitches in generally.

We have most definitely achieved a great deal with our social safety net, but more needs to be done-- a living wage would be a good start. The implementation of that would be a revolution in itself.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2012-01-05 21:15:41

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 21:31:21

I should probably note that I used "odious" as a bit of ironic exaggeration, to emphasize that you had a problem with Chesterton's implicit sexism but not his explicit revolutionary socialism (not a problem to everyone, of course, but quite a threat to many). It surprised me.

Comment edited by moylek on 2012-01-05 21:33:17

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted January 05, 2012 at 21:48:18 in reply to Comment 72759

Thanks for the comments--

Chesterton used a lot of hyperbole (just google Chesterton hyperbole), and what he actually espoused was distributism, not socialism. He famously debated with his friend G.B. Shaw, but they maintained a great respect and liking for each other.

What has always interested me most about this quote, as a parent, is his insistence that it is not a frivolous thing to want to help your children look their best, and that it is reasonable to account for it when considering the means a family requires to manage a household.

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2012-01-05 21:52:34

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted January 06, 2012 at 08:21:26 in reply to Comment 72760

Distributism? Somehow I've never heard of it - but am intrigued: "Too much capitalism does not mean too many capitalists, but too few capitalists."

And thanks for the link to the Shaw-Chesterton debate.

I agree with you that Chesterton is raising a non-trivial point. But like Undustrial, I think that if we eliminate one social marker (lice; holey shoes) we will simply find another - or rather, find that another is already there (messy hair; Korn t-shirts).

The only way to come close to getting rid of these damaging social markers is to have the state take over the raising of the children. And to be fair, it needs to be everyone's children, not just those of "the poor." And of course, we are already part of the way there with compulsory K-12 education. All-day kindergarten, JK and universal day care get us a little further along. And maybe state-supervised communal living where necessary, a la Bertrand Russell. And then we achieve paradise: not a workers paradise, but the well-intentioned, middle-class, liberal-minded, wage-earners bourgeois paradise. Which leaves me awash in a mixture of wistfulness and horror.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted January 06, 2012 at 10:28:04 in reply to Comment 72772

The only way to come close to getting rid of these damaging social markers is to have the state take over the raising of the children.

Yikes. The "state" solution is never the only solution. And it rarely really works. Consider the military - one part of society which has done quite a good job at eliminating (obvious) class distinctions among its ranks. It would be a huge leap from there to say that people on a military base are "free" or "equal".

There are lots of other ways to address these damaging social markets. We can call them out, expose them, or even mock them (ala the Hummer) until they no longer bestow social capital ("aren't cool anymore"). We can do what we want, rather than what people of our class are 'supposed' to do. And we can place a social stigma on class-based prejudices ("snobbery"). All things considered, we're a far more culturally egalitarian society than we used to be, and more than many like us (Britain, America etc).

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By Sucking Sound (anonymous) | Posted January 06, 2012 at 07:34:02

"Canada's economy began creating jobs again in December after two consecutive months of declines, but it was not enough to keep the unemployment rate from edging up a notch to 7.5 per cent.

Statistics Canada said the unemployment rate rose one-tenth of a point despite the jobs increase because more Canadians entered the labour force.

The pick-up of 17,500 jobs was welcome news after November and October's significant setbacks of 73,000, yet overall, there was little to cheer about in the first major economic report card of 2012.

The agency noted that all the gains were in the weaker categories of part-time and self-employment, whereas full-time work fell by 25,500 and the number of employees in the country declined by 13,600 in December.

The losses were offset by gains of 43,100 in part-time work and 31,100 in self-employment."

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/economy/jobs/jobless-rate-edges-up-to-75/article2293532/

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By what is the truth (anonymous) | Posted January 06, 2012 at 15:43:36

First off, I would like to say that for those without dental coverage, the state does very little to help people with problems. They just pull teeth, you cannot get things like root canals etc, even getting your teeth cleaned is a hugh problem.

It is frustrating when I read comments that people write about these issues, yet they have no general experiecne with the true reality.

One also has to consider what is going on the the workplace, since many workers have difficulty in geeting their wages paid, or as I would like to call it STOLEN WAGES.

The legislation at the Min of Lab is not strong enough to force emplyers to pay wages owed and these is elaving many workers struggling jsut to collect the money they have earned, even if they have a ruling from the Min of Lab that they are owed.

It is absolutely idsgusting that all levels of government have allowed this to happen.

It is very imperative that as a society we should be putting more resources into teaching workers their rights, since many business owners do not know the law and with the legislation that was passed by the Harris government back in the day, which ahs been continued by the pathetic liberal party, we are seeing workers left with no other option to fight back using tactics like protesting for their right wages that they earned.





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By TreyS (registered) | Posted January 21, 2012 at 23:35:27

I think I missed the memo that said, 'life is fair'.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 22, 2012 at 03:37:17 in reply to Comment 73224

From 1982-98, the number of Canadians on welfare averaged 8%. During this time period, GDP increased by 5.64%/yr. As for inflation, the average house increased by 4.43%, while oil prices fell from $39.30 CDN to $18.61 CDN.

Since that time, the number of people on welfare has declined substantially and is now at 3.46% (Ontario). With less people on welfare, our economy should be stronger, right?

Well, from 1998-current quarter, GDP in Canada has increased 4.50%/yr. However, the cost of a house has increased faster, by 7.10%/year (1998-2011) and oil has increased by 12.55%/yr.

Oh, but what about the deficit and the debt?

Private sector surplus = Public deficit + current account surplus...

http://pragcap.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/sb1.gif

Furthermore, because we issue debt in our own currency (unlike Greece, Portugal, Ireland, etc), there can never be an issue of solvency. All the feds have to do, to make interest payments, is issue more debt.

The good news is, we can increase welfare benefits, decrease household debt, and have a productive economy, but we have to stop worrying about the public debt.

The public debt is a myth/lie. If you don't agree, please tell me why you think it is a real concern.

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By Smacky McFist (anonymous) | Posted January 27, 2012 at 12:40:37

When I was a kid I had my orthodontic work done by the students at the U of T's school of dentistry. It's considerably cheaper.

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