Canada loses by continuing high levels of poverty
VancouverSun.com – opinion/op-ed – Opinion: One in eight Canadians live in dire straits
JULY 23, 2013. By Laurel Rothman And Adrienne Montani, Special To The Vancouver Sun
When the premiers convene this week in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., for their Council of the Federation summer meeting, there are three compelling reasons why they should call on the federal government to join them in addressing poverty which increasingly touches the lives of all Canadians.
Across Canada, over four million people, including 922,000 children and their families, live in poverty according to 2011 data from Statistics Canada. That’s about one in eight people who are living in dire straits in our wealthy land. Shamefully, B.C.’s rate is even worse at one in six people.
Poverty rates are even higher among historically disadvantaged groups, including women, people with disabilities, immigrants, people of colour, and indigenous people. That 40 per cent of indigenous children in Canada live in poverty is one troubling example of the scope of poverty among particular groups.
For the health of individual Canadians, the economy and the Canadian federation, the premiers need to strengthen their poverty reduction efforts. They can do so by calling on the federal government to adopt its own comprehensive and coordinated plan.
A well-developed plan, in cooperation with other levels of government, civil society, non-profit organizations, the private sector and environmental stewards, will help to sustain the Canada we want. That is a Canada where no one has to choose between going hungry and paying the rent, where employment and a living wage for workers is the norm, and where federal-provincial cooperation achieves environmentally sustainable ways to better the lives of all peoples within Canada.
The end of the Canada Health Transfer and the Canada Social Transfer next year raises red flags for those concerned about poverty. These federal transfers are essential financial tools that help provinces and territories prevent and ameliorate poverty, establish a foundation for wellness and lifelong health and provide health care services based on need — not wealth. Add in the scheduled phase-out of $1.7 billion in federal expenditures for social housing over the next five years, and we have a ‘perfect storm’ in which key federal programs addressing the social determinants of health are at grave risk.
Income is a key determinant of a person’s health, and the social and economic costs of poverty are high. Insecure housing and homelessness remain persistent and widespread across Canada. Hunger, inadequate nutrition and unsafe housing create hardship for families and result in higher expenditures for health care and social services.
In fact, Dr. Anna Reid, president of the Canadian Medical Association, told the federal Anti-Poverty All-Party Caucus in June that 20 per cent of health care spending goes to care for diseases that can be attributed to low income and poor housing.
Nor can we afford to waste the economic potential of all Canadians. When children in low-income families participate in quality early childhood education and care programs, it helps them succeed in school. When people can find jobs that pay living wages, they can support their families and contribute taxes to support all Canadians.
Finally, Canada’s high levels of poverty are not only bad for the economy, they also jeopardize social solidarity.
To deal with anticipated growing expenditures on health care and other services, it’s prudent to use all the tools at hand to boost low incomes and narrow the growing income inequality gap.
Provinces and territories control minimum wages, employment standards, some consumption tax credits and provide health care and social services. However, the federal government must be a partner in funding, creating a fairer tax system, and providing key income security measures including Old Age Security/Guaranteed Income Supplement, the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Child Tax Benefit/National Child Benefit Supplement.
When federal, provincial, territorial and First Nations governments work together they can reduce poverty, build social solidarity, and develop confidence in our governments. Great social advances have come when provinces and territories lead (as in medicare) and work with the federal government (pensions, social housing, child benefits). Indeed, the 2010 House of Commons report, Federal Poverty Reduction Plan: Working in Partnership Towards Reducing Poverty in Canada, supported by all parties, outlines what is needed to move forward.
A growing number of Canadians understand the compelling civic, moral and economic reasons why poverty must be tackled. B.C. needs to develop an plan to bring down our embarrassingly high levels of poverty. Now is also the time for the united voice of the provinces and territories to call on the federal government to take up their responsibilities to reduce and eventually eradicate poverty in Canada.
Laurel Rothman works at Family Service Toronto where she co-ordinates Campaign 2000: End Child Poverty in Canada. Adrienne Montani is Provincial Coordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
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