Senator urges debate on plight of poor
TheStar.com – Canada – Senator urges debate on plight of poor
Segal is asking Parliament to take another look at idea of guaranteed annual income program
February 11, 2008
Bruce Campion-Smith, Ottawa bureau chief
OTTAWAâ€“”The test of national progress is surely not merely in providing more for those who have much â€“ but also in providing enough for those who have too little.”
With those words, Senator David Croll went before Toronto’s movers and shakers 36 years ago and denounced the “scourge” of poverty in Canadian society.
“Truly we are dripping with wealth. The poor in this instance don’t even get the drippings,” Croll said in a speech to the Empire Club of Canada.
He lamented that governments were “pouring billions of dollars every year into a social-welfare system that merely treats the symptoms of poverty but leaves the disease itself untouched.”
But Croll was sure he had a solution â€“ a guaranteed annual income that would provide the poor with a minimum level of financial support to get by. That recommendation had been the centrepiece of a report prepared by the special Senate committee on poverty, chaired by Croll.
He said the scheme would serve as an incentive to work, “to ensure that those who work will receive and keep more income than those who do not.”
He said the time was “long overdue” for new thinking and a new approach to poverty.
“The elimination of the scourge of poverty from the land is a vital national goal,” Croll said in his speech on Jan. 27, 1972.
Today, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal has picked up the torch and has asked a Senate committee to again look at a national guaranteed annual income program, an idea that’s been oft recommended over the years but never implemented.
Segal is also trying to push poverty onto the national agenda â€“ and into the campaign platforms of the federal parties for an election that could be just months â€“ or even weeks â€“ away.
“I would hope that for all the debates we’re going to have on borders and on foreign policy. .. that there would be a national debate on poverty. … This is a thing that spans political parties,” he said.
In an interview last week, Segal evoked Croll’s speech to the Empire Club and noted that the plight of the poor has improved little in the decades since.
“You could be reading the same words today. So little has changed,” he said. “We have not budged the poverty numbers. There are still 11 to 12 per cent of the population living beneath the poverty line, worse in the rural areas.”
He blames bureaucratic inertia, risk-averse politicians and a lack of national willpower for the lack of a national consensus to find meaningful solutions to the problem.
“Just because we’ve done welfare the same way for 100 years doesn’t mean it’s the best way,” he said.
That’s why he’s asked the Senate committee on social affairs, science and technology to study the idea of a guaranteed annual income to lift the poor above the poverty line. The committee, headed by former Toronto mayor Art Eggleton, was already looking at the issues of urban poverty and homelessness.
Segal said a guaranteed income would help the working poor who often fall through the cracks.
“These are people who are working really hard, sometimes holding down two or three jobs, but they are not actually getting above the poverty line,” Segal said.
“If you don’t have enough money to live, through no fault of your own, (government) just quietly tops you up so you have a base that is enough to get by on.”
Segal said the working income tax benefit brought in by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to boost the wages of low-income workers has been a good start.
But he envisages a federal program, operating in co-operation with the provinces, that would provide a base payment to needy individuals, depending on their family size and where they lived.
He’s hoping the committee will look at the design of the program and perhaps prompt a federal-provincial task force to seriously address the issue.
“The notion that we have not had a first ministers’ meeting on poverty, ever, is in my view an abomination,” he said.
Croll’s recommendation for a guaranteed annual income was quickly rejected by then prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who called it a “good theory,” but unaffordable.
But Segal said that the income program doesn’t have to cost any more than the maze of municipal, provincial and federal social programs already in place to help the poor, such as subsidized housing and welfare, with inconsistent results.
And he makes the point that a country as rich as Canada should be able to afford to look after its citizens who have the least.
“For a country that’s in surplus, for a country that is awash in wealth, for a country that is performing best among the G-8 … this is the time for poverty to be front and centre; this is the time to make the progress,” Segal said.
“There will be divisions between Conservatives and Liberals and socialists about how we best do that … but let’s first decide we’re going to get it done.”