TORONTO (CCN) — If the economy leaves 1.3 million Canadian children living in poverty, then “the system has failed,” Senator Art Eggleton told religious leaders gathered at Queen’s Park Nov. 24.
“The band-aid approach, the incremental approaches that have been tried over the years — as good as the intentions have been — still haven’t been enough to really move the (poverty) numbers in a big way,” he said.
Politically, it apparently carries little weight that 60 per cent of Aboriginal children on reserves live in poverty, or that more than 150,000 Ontario families live below the Statistics Canada “Low Income Measure,” which draws the poverty line at $35,648 for a family of four.
“Poverty is a tough sell come election time,” Eggleton said.
Canada’s poverty numbers and the reality behind them are “shameful,” he said.
The senator and former Toronto mayor came to the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition meeting to urge ISARC to keep bothering the politicians. In 1989, when Parliament passed a unanimous motion calling for an end to child poverty by the year 2000, Canada’s child poverty rate was 15.8 per cent. Today it stands at 18.5 per cent.
Supported by the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario and Catholic Charities of Toronto, among others, ISARC brings together the religious leaders who run food banks, shelters and other services for the poor across the province. ISARC often piggybacks on the work of Campaign 2000, a coalition that addresses child poverty and is supported by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Providence and others.
ISARC’s response to the problem is a campaign called Billion or Bust. It demands $1 billion in new spending on social programs in the next Ontario budget and another $1 billion to build new social housing.
“The combination of people telling us all the things that are not happening right now, along with this real momentum to do something about it, really fed into the launch of the Billion or Bust campaign,” ISARC chair Rev. Susan Eagle told The Catholic Register.
ISARC is also arguing for an immediate raise in the minimum wage to $15 an hour. A phrase first used by Pope Leo XIII, “the living wage,” has become an ISARC watchword.
“If we increase social assistance rates and do nothing about minimum wage, all we do is create an inequity,” Eagle said.
“People who work for hours every day and still not be able to pay the rent.”
Spending money to eliminate poverty isn’t some sort of bottomless pit, but a practical plan to save money, said Campaign 2000 national co-ordinator Anita Khanna.
“We’re talking about upstream solutions that actually are cheaper than providing these programs,” she said. “The costs are very high for letting poverty exist, for maintaining it.”
A 2008 study commissioned by the Ontario Association of Food Banks found poverty costs Canada $7.6 billion per year in health care costs, $1 billion to $2 billion in crime, $35.8 to $41.2 billion in lost productivity.
As long as hospital emergency wards are full of poor people seeking help for chronic health problems — problems that would never have come up if they had good housing and a good diet as children — child poverty is costing the nation billions, said Khanna.
“We’ve seen some positive steps — the federal government acknowledging this reality and putting some programs in place,” said Khanna. “But we need to move more quickly.”
Speaking to ISARC in the Ontario legislature on the same day as Campaign 2000 released its annual report card on child poverty, Senator Art Eggleton proposed five ways Canada could tackle entrenched poverty — a problem that, according to some estimates, costs the Canadian economy $30 billion per year.
— Implement a guaranteed annual income or basic income to simplify the administration of complicated welfare systems and ensure the working poor a basic standard of living.
— Establish a living income of about 1.5-times the current minimum wage to lift people out of poverty.
— Initiate a complete review and reform of the tax system, not attempted since the 1970 Carter Commission, to close loopholes and lessen inequality.
— Create a national housing strategy to eliminate the threat of homelessness for the poor.
— Launch a national dental and pharmacare plan to provide the poor affordable access to these services.