How to make real progress against poverty

TheGlobeandMail.com – How to make real progress against poverty: The spread of food banks shows the dysfunction in Canadian income security programs
Published on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2009.   Conservative Senator Hugh Segal. Canadian Press

Canada’s first food bank opened in downtown Edmonton in 1981. It was seen as a short-term solution to a short-term problem. Almost 30 years later, few of them, if any, have been closed for lack of need. Until recently, Canada had enjoyed 15 years of sustained and strong economic growth, yet food bank usage increased by 13 per cent between 1997 and 2006. In short, we are seeing no net reduction in the percentage of Canadians living in poverty in good times or bad.

On Nov. 17, Food Banks Canada released HungerCount 2009 < http://www.cafb-acba.ca/documents/HungerCount2009NOV16.pdf >, the latest version of a yearly report providing usage numbers taken from the month of March. According to the 2009 findings, 794,738 separate Canadians were assisted by food banks this March – an increase of 18 per cent over the same period last year, the largest single-year increase on record. Among the findings:

* 37.1 per cent of those receiving assistance were under the age of 18 and 49 per cent of assisted households were families with children.
* 39 per cent were single people.
* 12 per cent were couples without children.
* 52 per cent live on income from social assistance.
* 13 per cent reported income from disability-related income support.
* 19 per cent said their primary income is from current or recent employment (13.6 per cent currently working, 5.3 per cent on employment insurance).
* 31 per cent of food banks reported not having enough food and 13 per cent of them ran out of it completely in March, up from 7 per cent the year before.

Canada’s income security programs are deeply dysfunctional. The percentage of Canadians living in poverty is not being diminished.

Last year, the standing Senate committee on agriculture and forestry released the report Beyond Freefall: Halting Rural Poverty. The testimony we heard from food-bank organizations brought home the plight of many hard-working, dedicated, community- and family-oriented Canadians who never thought they would be in the position of needing a food bank. For a farmer, having to access a food bank is the last straw. Canadian farmers have prided themselves for years on being the producers of food, for Canada and the world.

Our current social welfare system perpetuates poverty and exclusion; it’s a trap that maintains poverty and its negative pathologies, which sap economic efficiency and productivity. There are currently 24 separate federal income security programs, with applications and eligibility rules so complicated that civil servants and caseworkers themselves are often not sure how to proceed. Welfare-based assistance, which has enough rules to entangle but not enough strength to support, requires applicants to divest themselves of anything of value, right down to the teenager who is saving for a college education – his or her bank account must be exhausted, since it’s considered family income.

The effects of clawbacks on the working poor are real. A couple working full-time and making $34,000 a year, with two children, qualifying for subsidized housing or day care, would discover that a $6,000 yearly raise has actually left them $300 poorer. And the mistake of making it easier to live within poverty, as opposed to ending poverty, means that real progress is impossible.

Do we address the issue head on or do we meander around the bush, embracing relentless incrementalism? Food-bank employees and volunteers are the ones who hear the stories, who see the desperation and embarrassment, who understand why the current system is insufficient to address the most basic needs. Ironically, current welfare levels actually increase the need for food banks because they fall far short of any poverty line measure one might embrace, from StatsCan to the Fraser Institute. Does this make sense? Food banks are a result of poverty – not having enough money for food doesn’t cause poverty but is a product of poverty itself.

Canada, Ottawa and the provinces must do better. A minimum income allowance for all would end poverty, expand human dignity and build Canadian society. And the savings in hospitals, prisons and police work, where the poor are wildly overrepresented, would produce real savings, less waste and a much more productive use of taxpayer money.

Hugh Segal is a Conservative senator from Ontario and vice-chair of the cities subcommittee of the social affairs, science and technology committee.

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