Human Resources Committee on April 17th, 2008
Evidence of meeting #25 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 39th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was poverty.
A recording is available from Parliament.
On the agenda
- Shawn Pegg Manager, Policy and Research, Canadian Association of Food Banks
- Wayne Hellquist Chief Executive Officer, Regina and District Food Bank, Canadian Association of Food Banks
- Michael Buda Acting Deputy Director, Policy, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
- Michel Frojmovic Consultant, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
- Monica Townson Research Associate, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, As an Individual
- Chris Sarlo Professor, Department of Economics, Nipissing University, As an Individual
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), we resume our study of the federal contribution to reducing poverty in Canada. I declare this meeting open.
I want to welcome our witnesses and to thank them for being here. I'm talking about the Canadian Association of Food Banks, represented by Mr. Wayne Hellquist, Chief Executive Officer, and by Mr. Shawn Pegg, Manager; the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, represented by Mr. Michael Buda, Director, and Mr. Michel Frojmovic, Consultant; and Ms. Monica Townson, associated with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. In addition, Mr. Chris Sarlo, will testify as an individual, by videoconference.
Each group will have 10 minutes to make its comments, and then will move on to question by committee members. Before turning the floor over to you, I'm going to invite the parliamentary secretary, Ms. Yelich, to make an observation to the committee before we begin our business this morning.
Lynne Yelich Blackstrap, SK
Thank you. It is an observation.
We agreed on a general outline provided by the researchers. We have four meetings right now, and the first three meetings were going to focus on a broad overview of poverty in Canada. So we were going to think about who, where, what, and why. Then we were going to have the fourth meeting on how to proceed with the measurements. We wanted to grasp the definition of poverty and have a broad overview.
Then we agreed to go to the second part of the study to discuss the different strategies in Canada and abroad, and different reduction strategies. We also agreed to study how the federal government could contribute to the reduction of poverty.
We went off-track the other day and didn't seem to get a lot of ideas on a broad overview. I believe we talked more about diabetes, obesity, and ATM fees. We talked about almost everything in those first three crucial meetings except helping the committee come to some way of identifying the poverty that exists and measuring it so we can find ways for the government to contribute.
Let's talk about the broad overview and how we can find a formula or arrive at some way of measuring and getting a definition of poverty. It could take a long time if we continue only hearing witnesses without sticking to our plan--and we did have a fairly stringent plan.
So I just wanted to put that out to you. Maybe we need to have more detailed policy discussions and talk more about what can be done to lead to the part on how governments can contribute.
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
You'll understand, Ms. Yelich, and probably other committee members as well, that it may not be very opportune to start that debate this morning. Perhaps we could do it at the end of the meeting since the people who are invited here on behalf of their groups have received invitations with very specific indications as to what we expect. I imagine they have prepared accordingly.
It is now up to us parliamentarians to direct our questions on the basis of the invitation you've given us this morning, Ms. Yelich. Is that suitable to you?
Lynne Yelich Blackstrap, SK
That would be really good, and if we can ask witnesses--
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
The invitation could first be directed to the parliamentarians.
I will hear you as well, Mr. Ménard.
Réal Ménard Hochelaga, QC
With all due respect to the parliamentary secretary, I think she'll also understand that connections must be made between health determinants and poverty. I also hope she understood them, but I warned the government against an excessively reductive vision of poverty. It must be understood that, when we talk about poverty, we're talking about a multi-dimensional reality. Some connections may have escaped her, but they nevertheless remain relevant.
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
We all agree to limit ourselves to those indicators.
First, I'm going to invite the Canadian Association of Food Banks to give us its opinion. Will Mr. Hellquist or Mr. Pegg start?
Shawn Pegg Manager, Policy and Research, Canadian Association of Food Banks
I'll start. I'm Shawn Pegg, from Canadian Association of Food Banks.
Today I'll give you an overview of--
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
You have 10 minutes, and to ensure that each of you is able to conclude, I will give you a signal one minute before the end so you aren't caught off-guard.
Manager, Policy and Research, Canadian Association of Food Banks
I'm going to start by giving the who, what, and why of the food banks. It's our experience that not a lot of folks know the realities of the food bank world and who use food banks.
The Canadian Association of Food Banks was founded in 1986. We're a national organization representing provincial food bank associations, food distribution centres, and food banks at the federal level. We distribute corporate food donations through our national food sharing system. In 2007 we distributed about eight million pounds of food through that system. We also perform an annual hunger count survey, which counts the number of people who are assisted by food banks and also tracks things like household characteristics of those who are assisted.
I'd like to provide some information on the number of people assisted by food banks, on the scope of food charity in Canada, and very briefly on the limitations in the ability of food banks to address the need for emergency food assistance.
First of all, in March 2007 Canadian food banks assisted 720,000 individuals at least once. As a comparison, that's about the population of New Brunswick. That was down from a high of 824,000 per month in 2005, but nevertheless 8% higher than the level in 1997. Food bank use has not dropped below 700,000 people per month since 1997.
Who is assisted by food banks? We know that 19% are either employed or on employment insurance, 51% are receiving social assistance, about 13% are receiving provincial disability income supports, and about 6% report that their primary source of income comes from a pension. We also know that about 40% of those assisted are children under the age of 18. In some regions that figure jumps to about 50%, for example, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories; 51% of households assisted by food banks are families that contain at least one child; and about 44% of those households are two-parent families.
Things get a little bit more complex in rural areas, and by “rural” I mean areas with populations of less than 10,000 people. About half the food banks we know of are located in these kinds of small towns. In rural areas, the percentage of people assisted who report being employed drops somewhat, and the percentage of people who report being on pensions, disability income supports, and employment insurance increases. So the percentage of people on benefits is a bit higher in rural areas, as are the numbers of people who report being over the age of 65.
The large majority of people using food banks are in rental housing, with only about 8% reporting that they own their own home. Interestingly, in rural areas the percentage of people who report owning their home but still needing to use the food bank jumps to about 17% of the total.
Officially there are about 700 food banks across Canada, in every province and territory, along with 2,900 affiliated agencies--for example, soup kitchens, meal programs, before-and-after school programs, and what have you. Unofficially there are dozens, and probably hundreds, of small food banks serving two, five, ten families per month out of church basements, schools, and community centres.
To give you an idea of the scope of the food bank world in Canada, I'll give you a few interesting figures. In March 2007 volunteers donated 420,000 hours of their time to food banks. That's the equivalent of five full-time staff at each location, and that's per month. During the same period, paid staff worked 288,000 hours, or the equivalent of three full-time staff at each location. For the full year in 2007, the 322 food banks that participate in the CAFB's national food sharing system distributed more than 125 million pounds of food.
Even though food banks have been around for more than 20 years and have become quite good at soliciting and sharing food with those who need it, it remains that there are real limitations in the ability of food banks to meet the need for emergency food assistance. This is the larger point I would like to make today.
One figure that I think highlights limitations in food banks' ability to meet the need is the difference between the number of people who report not having enough food to eat and the number who are actually assisted by food banks. We know from the Canadian Community Health Survey of 2004 that 1.1 million Canadian households containing 2.7 million individuals reported being moderately or severely food-insecure, meaning that they had compromised quality and/or quantity of food consumed or had a reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns. These 2.7 million people are about 8.8% of the population. I compare that with the fact that food banks serve about 2.2% of the population. In other words, there are a significant number of hungry people who are not being assisted by food banks.
This brings me to just a very brief overview of our policy recommendations, which we've been making for a number of years in various contexts. They're based in the belief that we need strong support from all levels of government to address the problems I'm talking about today.
First, the CAFB supports a call for a national anti-poverty strategy with measurable targets and timelines. Given the fact that work is more likely than in the past to be temporary, part-time, and without health and other benefits, we are calling for increased EI coverage and benefit levels. In addition, we strongly recommend broadening eligibility for and increasing the levels of the working income tax benefit. We support the target of a $5,000 Canada child tax benefit. Fourth, we recommend increased and predictable support for a pan-Canadian system of affordable housing. Lastly, we recommend increased and ongoing support for a system of early learning and child care that is affordable and inclusive.
I'm hurrying a bit so that I can pass it off to my colleague Wayne Hellquist.
Wayne Hellquist Chief Executive Officer, Regina and District Food Bank, Canadian Association of Food Banks
Thanks, Shawn. I think those policy positions are supported broadly by the food bank movement across Canada.
I have the pleasure, actually, of operating the food bank in Regina, Saskatchewan. We're a community of about 200,000 people, and in any given month we're serving upwards of 7,500 or 8,000 people in our community who rely on the food bank for a portion of their food supply.
Remember, of course, that food banks deal with the poorest in our communities. No one chooses to be poor, and no one chooses to use the food bank. They're there because of circumstances that have dictated that, for whatever reason, they're unable to provide food for their family or food for themselves as individuals.
Food banks are really an emergency food supply only. We certainly don't intend to be the primary source of food for all these families. But as Shawn indicated, over 40% of those assisted across the country are children; in our province it's around 47%. These are individuals, of course, who through no fault of their own find themselves dependent on a system of food banks for their nutritional needs.
As was mentioned, hunger and poverty is a multidimensional issue, and I don't think the solutions are simple either. We've been focusing our work at the Regina food bank on moving beyond simply providing emergency food to providing training and education for the people who use the food banks. We believe that in the long term the best solution is to ensure that people have access to employment, access to life skills training, access to employment training.
We've just finished a research project looking at the possibility of food banks becoming a labour force intermediary. We believe as well that food banks can be a unique portal to other agencies and other services in our community, including access to employment training and access to employment. We certainly need to find those kinds of unique and innovative solutions, utilizing not just food banks but other community-based organizations that can, I think, be part of the framework of helping to resolve this long-standing issue of hunger and poverty in our communities.
The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard
Thank you, Messrs. Hellquist and Pegg.
Now we'll hear from the representative of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
Michael Buda Acting Deputy Director, Policy, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Thank you for inviting us to present on this important topic.
I'd like to briefly introduce us first. My name is Mike Buda. I'm the acting deputy director of policy at FCM. With me is Michel Frojmovic of Acacia Consulting. He works closely with FCM on our quality-of-life reporting system, which we'll be discussing in a few minutes.
Before I begin, I do want to pass on the regrets of our president, Winnipeg councillor Gord Steeves, and our CEO, Brock Carlton. Normally they would have appeared before this committee. They both had scheduling conflicts, and they asked us to appear on their behalf.
As I'm sure you're aware, municipal governments, as the order of government on the front lines, closest to the citizens, play a critical role when it comes to alleviating poverty. From housing to immigrant settlement, to community safety, to recreational opportunities, to building social cohesion and strong neighbourhoods, municipalities are usually the first order of government when it comes to poverty reduction. However, today we are here to speak about how municipalities actually measure poverty. Of course we'd be pleased to return to the committee to share some of our ideas on how the Government of Canada could partner more effectively with municipalities to reduce poverty, and some of our recommendations around poverty reduction, but again, we're here today to talk about how we actually measure poverty.
That being said, I want to turn the floor to my colleague, Michel to tell you about how FCM's quality-of-life reporting system measures poverty. And I should add, because Michel is quite modest, that he is one of Canada's leading practitioners of the measurement of quality of life, including poverty in Canada. He is an incredible technical resource from whom FCM has benefited for many years.
When Michel finishes telling you about the quality-of-life reporting system, what it does, and how it does it, I want to finish up by sharing some specific recommendations on how the Government of Canada could help municipalities improve the measurement of poverty. Ultimately, better measurement will assist municipalities in being more effective partners of the federal government in our collective efforts to reduce poverty in Canada's cities and communities.
With that, I'll turn it over to Michel.
Michel Frojmovic Consultant, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
I am going to focus on this question of measurement.
We started off in this meeting talking about the complexity of poverty, and certainly that's what we grapple with, but our starting point here is trying to understand the animal we're working with. The quality of life reporting system has been around now for over a decade. One of its strong features is trying to report on what's happening within municipal boundaries. Typically when data are released, they're released nationally or provincially, and sometimes what are described as cities and communities are in fact typically something like census metropolitan areas, CMAs. CMAs are not cities. They're almost never cities or municipalities. So one thing we try to make sure of is that we are reporting on municipal boundaries.
There are two reasons for that. One is that, as Mike mentioned, in many circumstances municipal governments, whether they're mandated to do it or not, are at the front line, and so it's important for those same municipal governments to understand what's happening in their communities. How do they measure poverty and understand it? That's one reason.
The other is that what's also very apparent when you do measure a range of issues at the municipal level is that poverty takes a very different face when you're looking from coast to coast to coast.
So those are two reasons why measuring poverty at a municipal level is important: because municipal government needs to know what's happening within its boundaries, and because poverty varies very significantly across the country whether you're looking at Regina, Montreal, or Toronto.
Just by example of what I mean by a CMA not being a city, the Toronto CMA actually includes five municipalities: Peel, Halton, Durham, York, and Toronto. The face of poverty in, say, York region or Durham region, which includes places like Oakville and Burlington, would be dramatically different from poverty in Toronto. So really we're trying to break down those administrative boundaries into municipal governments. That's just a starting point.
The reporting looks at a wide range of social, economic, and environmental trends and factors. We have approximately 75 indicators, but underlying those indicators is a pretty big repository of social, economic, and environmental data. These are trends that have been going on now for about 15 years, since 1991. So we do try to look at poverty from a multiplicity of dimensions.
We don't actually use the word “poverty” all the time either. We're looking at issues and trends. We released a theme report, as we called it, in 2004 that looked at income, basic necessities, and housing. In a sense, it was our poverty report, but we weren't using those terms.
I'm going to talk mainly about the ways in which, in effect, we do talk about poverty and the way we measure poverty. Just as a final note, though, on this quality of life reporting system, it is membership-based and the members are municipal governments. At present there are 22 municipalities, and typically they are the larger communities in Canada. So the Communauté métropolitaine de Québec and the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal would be two of the larger entities in terms of size. Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton--there are 22 cities representing about 50% of Canada's population. Those are the members. Because it's membership-driven, we are able to ensure that the data get used. The trends that we're talking about are actually used by those municipalities. So they're used both at a local level and also, we hope, at a national level in order to report on what's going on nationally at a local level.
That 2004 report raised a few highlights that are worth noting. One of them was essentially an attempt to get a handle on the risk of homelessness, not a count of homelessness but the factors that might explain homelessness. So we looked at things like social housing waiting lists and levels of unemployment, and lone-parent families-- about seven indicators in all--and we tried to understand, city by city, what was going on and what had been going on over time. So that was one example.
I'll just focus on four areas--because I assume there will be a chance to talk about these things if there's a desire for clarification--in which we are trying to measure poverty. I'll talk a bit about data, if that's okay with everybody.
We rely quite a bit on the Statistics Canada census, and we use that for the well-known LICO, the low-income cut-off. LICO is not a line of poverty; it's just an indication of where you are. If your household has an income below this amount, then you're considered to be living in poverty.
We look at LICO by city across Canada in terms of different kinds of families--single-parent families, couples with kids--and for different demographic groups, such as urban aboriginal communities, for example. There's a range of ways of looking at LICO. There will be one example using Statistics Canada census data, which can get expensive. The price is coming down a bit, but it's still expensive. That's an issue I'll come to later.
So that's LICO--the closest we have to a poverty line.
Another source for measuring poverty is tax filer data, the actual administrative data. This is administrative in the sense that it's not produced for purposes of policy; it's produced because you are required as a Canadian citizen to fill out your income tax form and submit it. There is a whole host of data sitting in there that is quite rich.
We use this tax filer data, again from Statistics Canada, to look at things like the income gap--the relationship between those with the highest income and those with the lowest income--in individual communities to determine how that gap is growing or shrinking. It's relative poverty.
We also use it to get a better handle on working poverty. The income tax forms tell us where you receive your money. Are you getting social assistance? Are you getting employment income? What ratio of that did you get over the year? That helps us construct an understanding of working poverty.
Again, one of the challenges we face is the cost. A single table that provides a richness of data can cost $10,000, which is pricey. But we invest in that sort of data from tax filer information.
A third source, which we consider to be a bit of value-added in the municipal world, is municipal governments and the administrative data they collect. If you've ever signed your kids up for swimming, you have to fill out a form, or at least an application form, and there is data there that gives some information on recreation. We do use recreation. But in terms of the focus we're talking about here, one thing we've been trying to get a handle on is the issue of homelessness and social housing.
Where municipalities fund emergency shelters, they have access to data on shelter usage and on the number of permanent beds by shelter type. That gives you a sense of whether there are more single women or more families going into the shelter system. The social housing waiting lists give you a sense of how many people are actually.... If you have a thousand people on the waiting list and it's been growing over the last 10 years, it gives you a sense of where you're going with social housing.
Again, the point of complexity is that any one of these doesn't really paint a very full picture. What we're trying to do is assemble a few dozen to try to understand what's happening in terms of poverty at a local level. To collect that data, we use a municipal data collection tool, an online survey, that reaches municipal staff.
I'm going to wrap up quickly.
Community-based data is the last source. As an example, FCM will work locally with food banks and seek to compile data from community organizations.
Those are just four examples of how we measure that. I'll just hand this back to Mike for the 45 seconds we have left.
Acting Deputy Director, Policy, Federation of Canadian Municipalities
Chair, in the handouts we have provided to you there are a number of recommendations as to how the Government of Canada could more effectively partner with municipalities to help municipalities measure data. I won't get into them now, but if there is an interest during the question and answer period, we can, of course, elaborate.