Freedom from Want

Posted on September 28, 2009 in Equality Debates, Governance Debates, Health Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Articles – Freedom from Want
First published Sep 25, 2009.   Robert Rainer, Executive Director of Canada Without Poverty (CWP/CSP).

From parliamentarians, think tanks, and NGOs, the reports on combating Canadian poverty keep on coming. “Eh, what do you mean, poverty in Canada?”

1. The poverty of the homeless, who number as many as 300,000 – about one in 110 of us.
2. The poverty of the millions of working poor whose insufficient earnings do not meet ends. (They, too, are often among the homeless.)
3. The poverty of the young, whose setbacks put them at a disadvantage from the get-go, while costing us all a bundle. (A 2008 study pegged the cost of child poverty in the U.S. at $500 billion USD per year: pro-rating to Canada, our cost may be $50 billion CDN or more, or about 3 per cent of GDP.)
4. And poverty of Aboriginals, recent immigrants, persons with disabilities … the story runs deep.

The latest report is from The Conference Board of Canada. In its 2009 edition of “How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada,” the board gives Canada a “D” for the poverty rate (12 per cent) among working-age adults. It also issues a “C” for our record on child poverty, income inequality (poverty’s ugly step-parent), and the pay equity gap (21 per cent) between women and men.

Indeed, in a ranking of 17 peer countries, the board placed Canada 13th for its child poverty rate in the mid-2000s (15.1 per cent, up from 12.8 per cent 10 years earlier), and 15th for its poverty rate among working-age adults (12.2 per cent, up from 9.4 per cent). We fare better with an “A” grade for our elderly poverty rate (5.9 per cent). But even here is trouble – in the mid-1990s it was almost half that, just 2.9 per cent.

Which raises the question: What does Canada need to do differently to progress on this issue?

The Conference Board points to solutions often touted – “make work pay” and greater investment in education, child care, and flexible employment for parents. These are urgent, but alone, and even in combination, are insufficient. For there are at least two prerequisites to meaningful Canada-wide progress on poverty – and both are presently lacking.

First is for the exercise of visionary, vigorous federal leadership. Through its policy-making and income redistribution powers, the federal government is a critical combatant of poverty. Precisely because of the federal introduction of income security programs for seniors, the poverty rate for the aged is admirably low.

But rather than seize the day for stepped-up leadership on this issue, the Conservative government rejects a strong federal role. In June, it rejected a UN Human Rights Council recommendation for Canada to have a national poverty elimination strategy, falsely claiming that “provinces and territories have jurisdiction in this area of social policy.” In fact, the feds own, control, administer, or fund 75 to 80 per cent of all income security programs in the land and, as well, have a major hand in housing, health, post-secondary, and other relevant programs. Indeed, according to an OECD report, were it not for government cash transfers and tax credits for low-income earners, Canada’s poverty rate in the mid-2000s would have been 23 per cent rather than 12 per cent.

The second prerequisite for lasting success is to place human rights at the centre of anti-poverty action.

Too often, the call for action is based on charity, not justice. “Help for the vulnerable,” we hear.

But embracing poverty as a matter of human rights – what Louise Arbour calls “an international consensus on the minimum conditions for a life of dignity” – changes the frame. She argues that giving economic, social, and cultural rights, as articulated within the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and related agreements, the force of law – the status of constitutional entitlement – would promote the “freedom from want” to which millions of Canadians aspire, while capturing the “immense opportunity to affirm our fundamental Canadian values” such as fairness and equality.

The tide is turning towards the rights-based approach to poverty. As one marker, Amnesty International recently launched its worldwide Demand Dignity campaign with the observation that “whatever plan is pursued, whatever projects are prioritized, whatever aid package is agreed, no solution to poverty without human rights at its core will have any long-term impact. … Governments must create the conditions that allow people living in poverty to claim their human rights, to empower themselves, so that they can be masters, and not victims, of their destiny.”

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