JOURNEY TO JUSTICE
By Joe Gunn
Poverty in Canada remains deep and persistent
My daughter just can’t believe the poverty she has seen this past week.
I was a bit surprised at this news, when she reached us by phone. Here, after all, is a young woman who has travelled to Ecuador, Chile, Guatemala and Bangladesh, and completed her university degree. She had just left for a six-month stint, along with 17 other young adults from Nicaragua and Canada, to live with host families, learn each other’s customs, and work with social agencies.
Poverty in Canada remains deep and persistent — even if at times hidden. Nearly 3.8 million Canadians struggle to put food on the table every day. Approximately one in seven Canadians lives in poverty, but many of us never suspect the rate is that high. Imagine my own surprise to see a woman from our parish on the CBC national news, and discover how as a single mom she worked evenings as a caregiver making barely enough to cover babysitting costs for her daughter — whom I recognized in the previous Sunday’s first holy communion class.
Our economy has experienced only sluggish growth since the 2008-09 recovery, and government policies have allowed economic benefits to concentrate even further among the very well-to-do. Tax cuts in Canada have been among the largest in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Canada’s income security system is now one of the weakest among developed countries — ranking at 25 out of 30 countries studied.
Many of today’s poor (40.3 per cent, up from 19 per cent in 1981) are singles between the ages of 18 and 64. Some of these are unemployed people, but many others are “precariously employed,” i.e., with low wages or unable to work enough hours. Could many of us get by on the minimum wage of $10 in Saskatchewan?
And poverty is not, of course, an “equal opportunity offender.” Certain demographics are over-represented among those living in poverty: single parent families (usually with struggling single moms), newcomers, Aboriginal people and people of colour among them. As well, the young adult unemployment rate is double the Canadian average.
It would be wrong to conclude that nothing can be done. Canadians have successfully lowered child poverty rates by introducing programs like the Canada Child Tax Benefit. And the decline in old-age poverty has been due to government retirement income programs like Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. This shows that we know how to reduce poverty — when our society, and the governments we elect — care to do so.
To face the spectre of poverty in Canada, all of us need to respond. But charitable deeds are not enough. Almost one million Canadians rely on food banks every month — but when affordable housing and poverty are not addressed, the public and our governments must spend substantially more money managing the symptoms, rather than addressing the causes.
In Ontario, an elderly group called “Freedom 90” sardonically asked Premier Wynne to allow volunteers at emergency meal programs to retire before they reach the age of 90! Demanding that social assistance and minimum wages are sufficient for everyone, so that their work is unneeded, they also pleaded for government to lay them off and freeze — or double — their wages. (This wouldn’t matter, since volunteers are unpaid!)
On Oct. 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, people of faith will join Chew On This! volunteers in up to 35 locations across Canada. They will hand out lunch bags on the street, asking us to envision a community where poverty does not have to exist. Filled with an apple and a fridge magnet, each bag will include a postcard calling upon Prime Minister Harper to develop and implement a national plan to eliminate poverty. The consensus is that without a plan it is supremely difficult to establish goals, co-ordinate policies and funding between levels of government and private agencies, much less to evaluate success. Seven provinces have a plan (but unfortunately, not Saskatchewan as yet). The United Nations, the Senate and a parliamentary committee have demanded one. It is time for Canada to act.
To participate in Chew On This! events, please visit http://www.cpj.ca/idep
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, ecumenical organization that promotes justice, peace and the integrity of creation.