Name a poverty czar for Canada

Posted on December 31, 2008 in Governance Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Name a poverty czar for Canada
December 30, 2008. Gerry McCarthy

Ending poverty isn’t likely to be a top priority for the Harper Conservatives as they prepare their Jan. 27 budget. But it should be.

That’s why Prime Minister Stephen Harper should appoint a poverty czar. That individual would be given a specific mission: To build a single, comprehensive and concrete plan to end poverty.

It’s estimated that 11 per cent to 12 per cent of Canadians live in poverty today. The statistics for child poverty are even worse. Just recently the Community Foundations of Canada issued a report titled Vital Signs and said child poverty is virtually at the same level it was in 1989. The report said 1.6 million children (or 23 per cent of the child population) lived in poverty in 2006.

A poverty czar would need to do many things, including: Increasing the working tax credit, revamping the Employment Insurance system and increasing the minimum wage. But most importantly, a poverty czar would have to find support for a guaranteed annual income.

Summoning that support will not be easy. Many say a guaranteed annual income is a “handout” and a disincentive to workers. Others find the idea has merit but say it’s unaffordable. Yet as governments bail out financial institutions and auto makers, it’s hypocritical to say helping the poor is a handout.

In Poverty and Inequality, the legal scholar Martha Fineyard addressed the issue of so-called handouts.

“In complex modern societies no one is self-sufficient, either economically or socially,” she writes. “Whether the subsidies we receive are financial (such as in government transfer programs or favourable tax policy) or non-monetary (such as those provided by the uncompensated labour of others in caring for us and our needs), we all live subsidized lives. In fact, all of us receive both forms of subsidy during our lives.”

It’s morally objectionable that 23 per cent of Canadian children live in poverty. A decent society must not tolerate this situation.

But let’s not forget that tackling poverty is good for the economy too. Studies from other countries are instructive. In 2007, the Centre of American Progress laid out the serious costs to the U.S. economy in failing to tackle child poverty. And a recent Harvard University report said that hunger in the U.S. results in a cost burden on the American people of more than $90 billion.

In the United Kingdom, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released a report recently that said poverty costs the country approximately $25 billion. That works out to be an estimated 1 per cent of the gross domestic product.

The Rowntree report described two different ways child poverty imposes costs. First: Growing up poor is associated with a range of poorer outcomes in adulthood, and poor physical and mental health. That places extra burdens on public services. Second: The lost potential associated with growing up poor means the country loses out on productivity, earnings and taxation.

A poverty czar in Canada would need to set ambitious goals to combat poverty. Why not pledge to cut poverty in half within five years and eliminate it completely by 2020? That may seem too optimistic. But we’re talking about the future of our children.

Why has poverty been allowed to exist in Canada for so long? The reasons are complex. But it’s usually about attitude.

For example: People say the poor make bad decisions, and are the authors of their own misfortune. Others say welfare creates dependency. But the more we use these terms, the more cynical we become.

Perhaps the words of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard will urge us on: “If I were to wish for something,” he said. “I would wish not for wealth or power but the passion of possibility, for the eye, eternally open, eternally ardent, that sees possibility everywhere.”

Canadians haven’t lost that sense of possibility. We desire a just society. But we need renewal. That should start with a rejection of clichés about the poor. Only then can we reimagine what a decent society would look like.

Gerry McCarthy is editor of The Social Edge, an online social justice and faith magazine.

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