‘A country that cannot feed its own people has no right to preach to others’

NationalPost.com – Full Comment/Today’s Letters
December 20, 2013.   Arthur Bielfeld, Patricia E. McGrail, Wayne Underhill (Paul Russell)

Re: Moore Unfairly Pilloried Over Child Poverty, Andrew Coyne, Dec. 19.

Andrew Coyne quotes the federal minister of industry, James Moore, as saying: “Empowering families with more power and resources so that they can feed their own children is, I think, a good thing.”

The Minister may have been quoted out of context, but surely Mr. Coyne could point out that the Minister’s government has hardly been dedicated to this proposition. That’s the real point.

The philosophy and policy of this Conservative government has been to make it more difficult for poor families to feed their own children. More and more “middle class” families are also finding it difficult. Poor families find it impossible. Poverty is less a result of the inheritance of class than the inheritance of poverty. And too many Canadians have bought into the philosophy that if it’s not the government’s role to try to fix this “inheritance” thing by a more equitable social policy, then why should they?

Rabbi Arthur Bielfeld, Toronto.

Even with Andrew Coyne’s bent-over-backwards justification of James Moore’s comments, he missed some very important issues. The measurement used to determine poverty in Canada is far too low — and manipulated for political purposes. The country may have never been wealthier, but that wealth is going to a few at the top, who pay about 50% of the taxes that they used to 30 years ago. How are poor families feeding their children? With foodbanks and by going into debt. The provinces may be responsible for alleviating poverty, but they rely largely on federal transfers for funding this. This federal government takes no leadership in solving the problems of its citizens — unless they are connected with the corporate elite. So, Mr. Coyne, you too, are guilty of not presenting a balanced picture.

Patricia E. McGrail, Brampton, Ont.

Andrew Coyne’s comment on Mr. Moore’s gaffe regarding the feeding of Canadian kids fails to mention the disturbing fact that by election time 2015, the number of children living at or below the poverty line in Canada will be one million. And while he is right to say that feeding these poor children is a provincial responsibility, within that number there will be 400,000 First Nation children whose welfare rests squarely with the federal government. Where is the Harper government’s Policy on Poverty? A country that cannot feed its people has no right to preach civil and human rights to others.

Wayne Underhill, Chilliwack, B.C.

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James Moore’s poverty comment was ill-phrased, but, by and large, true

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
December 18, 2013.   Andrew Coyne

Possibly you have read of the shocking statements on child poverty this week from the federal minister of Industry, James Moore. I’ll repeat them here for the record, with a warning that the contents may be disturbing to some readers:

“Of course nobody wants kids to go to school hungry… We want to make sure that kids go to school full-bellied… Empowering families with more power and resources so that they can feed their own children is, I think, a good thing.”

Mind you, those may not have been the statements you read. What you would be more likely to have seen quoted, from a scrum with a Vancouver radio reporter, would be: “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so,” or “is that always the government’s job to be there to serve people their breakfast?” The story appeared on the radio station’s website under the headline “Federal minister says child poverty not Ottawa’s problem.”

Which was the more representative expression of the minister’s thinking: the part where he expressed support for “empowering families with more power and resources” to “make sure that kids go to school full-bellied”? Or the part where he asked whether it was “always the government’s job to … serve people their breakfast”? The only logical answer is both. He said them together. He meant them to be taken together.

The statements were part of a long, rambling answer which the minister probably regrets giving. He had been asked — challenged, might be better: “Child poverty in B.C. is at an all-time high. What does the federal government plan to do about that?” The question, it is evident from the tape, flummoxed him, and it’s not hard to see why.

One, the rate of child poverty is not at an all time-high. The measurement of poverty is a hugely contentious issue, but by the standard long favoured by poverty activist groups, Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off (after tax), poverty is in fact at an all-time low in Canada, at 8.8% of the population; child poverty, at 8.5%, is just off its low. There remains a particular problem in B.C., with a rate of child poverty of 11.3%. But this, too, is well down from its peak — it was over 19% just a decade ago — and lower than at most times in the last 40 years.

Two, the direct relief of poverty is primarily a provincial jurisdiction, at least as far as social assistance is concerned. The federal government helps, whether in the form of transfers to the provinces, or in benefits delivered to individuals: the National Child Tax Benefit, the Working Income Tax Benefit, the Guaranteed Income Supplement for the elderly, and so on.

And of course the feds have some responsibility for the general state of the economy, the rate of unemployment and growth, on which the incidence of poverty crucially depends. The reason poverty has fallen so far over the last two decades is in large measure due to the steady growth we have experienced through most of that period.

All well and good. But no one that I am aware of has proposed that the feds should operate school breakfast programs.

All of these were no doubt coursing through Moore’s head in that instant. And in the moments that followed, he attempted to stammer them out. “We’re not going to usurp the province’s jurisdiction on that,” he began. “How one certainly scales and define poverty is not quite an apples to apples comparison all across the country… More Canadians are working now than ever before… We’ve never been wealthier as a country…” And then those seemingly contradictory passages about empowering families with resources but not actually serving them breakfast.

It’s clumsy, it’s ill-phrased, it leaves much unsaid and says much that might have been better not. But it’s also, by and large, true. Social assistance is provincial jurisdiction. Poverty definitions do vary. Both employment and household net worth are at an all-time high. As for the concluding passages: is it to be disputed that, as a general rule, it is parents’ responsibility to feed their kids? Where aid is provided, is it not at least arguable that we should pay benefits in cash, rather than in services — letting families, rather than caseworkers, decide how they should be spent? Isn’t that, in part, what Senator Hugh Segal’s campaign for a guaranteed annual income is about?

To be sure, the minister might have done better to have peppered these with “of course, any amount of child poverty is too much,” that “while we have made great progress, there is always more we can do.” But we are a long way from the sentiments his critics have since attributed to him, of which “are there no workhouses” might give the flavour.

The minister’s statements, shocking as they seem in isolation, were indeed quoted out of context, as he later protested: context, not just in the sense of the words that surround the quoted passages, but also everything we know about the person who made them. Moore has said nothing previously to suggest a belief that children should be left to starve, a fact that would have been known to most of those who cited the story. Yet he was pilloried as if he had.

Because he had said something that was capable of being interpreted that way, and under the rules of the political game, you lose as many points if not more for that: hence the minister’s subsequent abject apology. Perhaps that’s fair enough. He is in the communications business. Staying out of needless trouble is part of his job description. I say needless: this was not a brave but necessary challenge to the status quo, intended to provoke debate. It was an inept answer to a loaded question, the political equivalent of a kick-me sign.

Call him maladroit, then. But Scrooge, he is not.

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