What is poverty?

WindsorStar.com – business
June 22, 2011.   By Gemma Smyth and Fabio Costante, The Windsor Star

What is poverty? To those struggling to meet their basic needs, the question may seem academic. However, the answer to this question has real consequences, particularly for policy-makers. As the author of the June 6 article Defining Poverty asked: “Why is there no universally accepted definition of poverty here in Canada?”

Federal, provincial and municipal governments use a variety of definitions of poverty, the most common being the “LICO” (low income cut-off). There are a variety of other ways that organizations, governments and businesses may choose to measure poverty. For example, the LIM (low income measure) is an income threshold relative to the median family income.

The MBM (market basket measure) is based on the cost of a “basket” of goods including food, shelter, clothing and transportation, adjusted depending on region. Unemployment statistics may be a useful measure of how many people will be at risk of living in poverty should they fail to find a job.

We also may focus on the number of people in Windsor-Essex, and in Canada, who are working part time, particularly when they would prefer to work full time.

There are also many who work for minimum wage. Working 30 hours per week at $10.25 per hour (the highest minimum wage of all the provinces and territories in Canada) equates to an annual income of $15,990.

Regardless of the measures used, the reality is that leaving poverty unaddressed costs Canadians far more, both economically and socially. Data collected across Canada and the United States since the 1970s draws very clear connections between poverty and increased use of hospital and other emergency services, decreased life expectancy, in-creased severity and number of chronic illnesses, low birth weight and higher incidents of childhood diseases.

Poverty disproportionately affects children, people with disabilities, First Peoples, lone-parent households (particularly female-led) and new Canadians. Ontario spends almost $3 billion per year on poverty-related remedial health care costs. Canadians forgo $4 billion to $6.1 billion in income tax revenues because of poverty (Ontario Association of Food Banks, 2008).

Poverty is also linked to decreased civic and social participation.

Perhaps it is more useful, then, to consider how we have erected barriers for citizens that prevent full participation in our community.

The roundtable of Pathway to Potential, the Windsor-Essex Poverty Reduction Strategy, recently adopted a definition of poverty that embraces this approach: “Poverty results from barriers to social and economic resources that prevent well-being and access to opportunities in the community.”

This definition does not include a number below which people must fall, but rather recognizes that, regardless of definition, our failure to address the root causes of poverty is a cost too great to ignore.

Rather than asking why there is no universally accepted definition or whether we choose to measure absolute or relative poverty, we may wish to ask: Why, with all the evidence that treating the symptoms of poverty makes poor economic and social sense, is there a lack of political will to address the root causes of poverty?

Please join us in focusing our energies on the reduction and prevention of poverty in Windsor-Essex.

Gemma Smyth and Fabio Costante are co-chairs of Pathway to Potential, a communitybased collaborative comprised of business, non-profit, government and people who have experienced poverty. For more information about Pathway to Potential, please visit pathwaytopotential.ca.

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