Truth carries a painful user fee
TheStar.com – comment – Truth carries a painful user fee
November 28, 2007
There’s a reason you didn’t know until this week that Toronto’s poverty trends are starkly different from those in the rest of the country. Statistics Canada never released the information.
The United Way of Greater Toronto had to pay the agency $28,000 for government data showing that family poverty deepened in Toronto between 2000 and 2005, while low-income households made modest gains everywhere else.
It had to spend its donors’ money to prove that Toronto has the lowest median income of any major urban centre in the country.
It had to dip into its charitable givings to marshal evidence Ã¢â‚¬â€œ already collected at taxpayers’ expense Ã¢â‚¬â€œ that a one-size-fits-all poverty strategy won’t work for Toronto.
Frances Lankin, president of the United Way, does not think this is right.
But without access to Statistics Canada’s unpublished numbers, her agency could not have delivered this week’s groundbreaking report, Losing Ground: The Persistent Growth of Family Poverty in Canada’s Largest City. It could not have demonstrated that the drop in the national poverty rate in the first half of this decade excluded Toronto. It could not have exposed a vital hidden truth.
Undoubtedly, the $28,000 was money well spent.
But why should Statistics Canada, a federal agency with a $600 million annual budget and a mandate to “help Canadians better understand their country,” charge a non-profit organization for a missing chapter of the poverty story?
Why should the United Way have to ferret out a disturbing exception to the positive developments highlighted by Statistics Canada?
Why should reliable figures on poverty Ã¢â‚¬â€œ which have little commercial value Ã¢â‚¬â€œ remain out of reach for non-paying clients?
(The United Way is not the only victim of Ottawa’s “cost-recovery” policy, which dates back to Brian Mulroney’s first term of office. Social service agencies, child poverty organizations, universities and libraries are all affected).
The United Way report illustrates the drawbacks of letting Statistics Canada decide what the public needs to know.
Until Monday, Canadians had legitimate grounds to believe Toronto was whining needlessly, exaggerating its woes, wilfully ignoring the fact that poverty is easing.
Torontonians themselves had reason to suspect their civic leaders and social activists were deliberately downplaying the progress of recent years.
It turns out that the progress was taking place everyplace but Toronto.
It is now clear that food bank managers, social housing providers, children’s advocates, immigrant support workers and the mayor were right: Hunger is still rising. Evictions are increasing. Single-parents families are on a downward spiral.
This calls for a sophisticated anti-poverty strategy, one designed to take into account that Canada’s largest city is painfully out of step with the country as a whole.
It calls for a hard look at what makes poverty in Toronto more intractable than it is in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg or Vancouver.
It calls for a rethinking of the notion that pushing low-income parents into the workforce will lift their families out of poverty in a city where many end up in precarious, low-wage jobs that don’t pay enough to live on.
The United Way is recommending all these measures.
It is urging Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose government is developing an Ontario-wide poverty reduction strategy, to set specific targets and timelines for Toronto. Otherwise, Lankin fears, the city will continue to lose ground.
It is appealing to Human Resources Minister Monte Solberg to restore Ottawa’s shrunken Employment Insurance program. In Toronto, just 22 per cent of workers who lose their jobs qualify for benefits (compared to 36 per cent in Montreal, 30 per cent in Halifax and 27 per cent in Vancouver).
It is asking policy-makers at all levels to listen to community activists. They know what’s going in the streets, the shelters and the food banks. They know when Ottawa’s statistics are at odds with local realities.
This time, the United Way of Greater Toronto managed to set the record straight. Next time, the public might be misled.