On April 21, Finance Minister Joe Oliver delivered a 37-minute speech on the 2015 federal budget. Shortly after, many MPs, their staff members, journalists and Ottawa’s ubiquitous lobbyists headed off for the evening to Hy’s Steakhouse, an upscale spot near Parliament Hill. There are three food banks in Ottawa-Gatineau, one of them just a few kilometres from Hy’s. And to the folks who use them, the federal budget offered only meagre crumbs from the table, as Oliver never once mentioned the word “poverty” as it applies to Canada.
Food Banks Canada says that 841,000 Canadians turn to food banks each month, and nearly half are families with children. So why have food banks become a permanent fixture? For one thing, provincial social assistance rates provide, at best, an income about 40 per cent below the poverty line. Another problem is precarious work and low wages. About 20 per cent of food bank users are people who are working — or who have worked recently enough — to receive employment insurance.
Our dirty little secret is that almost five million Canadians live in poverty, but Food Banks Canada has a five-point plan that includes having Ottawa invest in affordable housing — a field vacated under the Chrétien Liberals — and replacing ineffective provincial social assistance bureaucracies with a basic income administered through the tax system.
If this sounds revolutionary, it really isn’t. When I was a cub newspaper reporter in Prince Albert, Sask., in 1970, I covered a hearing of the Senate Committee on Poverty led by Senator David Kroll. His committee’s report called for a guaranteed annual income. In 2009, there was another Senate report on poverty which was inspired and driven by Senator Hugh Segal among others. Segal, who is now retired from the Senate, says that a guaranteed annual income is as worthy a Canadian project as medicare.
More recently, a coalition called Dignity for All has led a campaign for a national anti-poverty plan. Their recommendations include a national housing strategy; a national pharmacare program because medicare covers only 70 per cent of health care costs and prices for pharmaceuticals are rising rapidly; a publicly funded early childhood education and care program; as well as a national minimum wage set above the poverty line.
In return for their good work, both of Dignity for All’s partner organizations have been targeted for audits by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) on the grounds that they are being too political. Citizens for Public Justice survived its audit several years ago and Canada Without Poverty is currently under the CRA’s microscope. These audits, which threaten the loss of charitable status, are both mean-spirited and politically motivated.
Not surprisingly, the government’s 2015 budget continued with the politicized practice of providing boutique tax cuts to core constituencies. But once again, there was no action on poverty. In fact, the word wasn’t even mentioned. Perhaps we can all pitch in to help groups, such as Food Banks Canada and Dignity for All, make eradicating poverty an issue in the upcoming federal election.
Gruending is an Ottawa-based writer and a former member of Parliament. His blog can be found at http://www.dennisgruending.ca A version of this post appeared on the United Church Observer blog, www.ucobserver.org