Yes, I can hear you. Thank you.
I'm delighted to speak with you today on this very important topic. As you may know, I've done considerable research on the definition and measurement of poverty over the past 15 years and I'm hoping that research will help inform the issues you have before you at the present time. Permit me to start, though, with some critical comments.
On November 24, 1989, Ed Broadbent rose in the House of Commons to speak passionately about child poverty. Here's what he had to say:
I repeat, while the over-all sense of well-being for most Canadians has been getting better, that of our children has been getting worse. While the rest of us have been better clothed, there are more kids going without shoes. While the rest of us have improved housing, we have literally thousands of children who are homeless in Canada. Being a poor kid means box lunches from food banks and soup from soup kitchens. Mr. Speaker, to be a poor kid means trying to read or write or think on an empty stomach. One quarter of our children are wasting away. This is a national horror, this is a national shame that we should put an end to.
At the end of his speech and after some discussion, Mr. Broadbent put a motion on the floor that Canada end child poverty by the year 2000. The motion was unanimously endorsed by the House of Commons.
I think a lot of Canadians might wonder what Parliament did to honour the commitment they made to end child poverty. Did they clarify what it is exactly that they resolved to put an end to? In other words, did they define carefully what they meant by child poverty? Did they ask Statistics Canada to precisely measure the number and proportion of poor children in Canada and track that over time? Did they set specific targets and timetables for the elimination of child poverty, so they could monitor whether they were on track with their plan? And did they even have a plan as to how they would eliminate that which they unanimously resolved to do?
These would be standard businesslike steps to the resolution of a problem, one that's been around for decades. They are essential parts of problem solving and are absolutely necessary for accountability.
So let's ask how we have done on child poverty. If we use a measure that a number of parliamentarians and many in the social welfare community prefer--and I've heard that term mentioned a couple of times this morning--the low-income cut-off, then apparently child poverty has not only not been eliminated, it has actually increased, at least up to 2003. That's the latest data provided by the National Council of Welfare.
What should we make of this episode? I believe Canadians have every right to think that either Parliament doesn't take its own unanimous resolution seriously, that it was an empty promise that looked good politically at the time, or that Parliament is incompetent, completely incapable of making realistic promises and developing plans to accomplish an objective. Either way, Canada looks bad. We look bad to ourselves and we look bad to outsiders.
Let's move forward from 1989 to 1995. There was a world summit on social development in 1995 in Copenhagen. It was sponsored by the United Nations, and one of the key issues debated at that summit was poverty. At the end of the summit, there were two very important declarations.
One was that all nations, including nations in the developed world, establish measures of both absolute and relative poverty. So everybody is clear on these terms, “absolute poverty” refers to real deprivation, the absence of some basic necessity of life. It is usually determined using some kind of fairly strict market basket measure. “Relative poverty”, on the other hand, refers to being unequal, of having much less than most others in your society, regardless of your absolute situation.
So to restate the first declaration of the summit, the summit sponsored by the UN declared that all nations should develop measures of both absolute and relative poverty.
The second declaration was that all nations should gear their national policies to “eradicating absolute poverty by a target date to be specified by each country in its national context”.
Canada was one of a host of countries that signed on to those declarations. The task they committed themselves to at Copenhagen was pretty clear: to develop measures of both absolute and relative poverty and to develop a specific plan to end absolute poverty. There's no ambiguity about that. The government couldn't argue later on that it was confused about what it agreed to do. Admittedly, it's not easy to end absolute poverty, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we could even seriously reduce the number of people who suffer real deprivation?
We can ask again, what did the Canadian government in fact do to keep its commitment in Copenhagen? Did we develop a measure of absolute poverty? Did we develop a measure of relative poverty? Did we determine the incidence of absolute poverty, as a first step towards a plan to eliminate this terrible social problem? Did we take any serious steps towards achieving these very specific goals? Anything at all?
Believe me, I did some checking. After a lot of phone calls, I finally managed to speak to some people in the bureaucracy who were aware of our commitments at Copenhagen. After these conversations, I concluded that we did nothing to achieve these goals. Specifically, we did not develop a measure of absolute poverty and we certainly have not eliminated absolute poverty. And there's no clear evidence, even from the research that I do, that we've even managed to reduce absolute poverty over the past 10 years.
So we didn't even have any kind of intelligent national discussion about the issue. Again, what should Canadians think of their elected representatives? I think Canadians have a right to be embarrassed. It's really shameful.
Why do governments make these commitments if they have absolutely no intention of keeping them? We're not talking about small issues here that maybe nobody will notice. We're talking about, and we're dealing with, a matter of impoverished Canadians. We're dealing with a serious social and economic problem.
Having said all of this, we recognize that governments of Canada at both levels have devoted resources to the problem. We have the Canada child benefit program that's been expanded and enhanced, and there have been other changes to put more money into the hands of some poor people, but where's the systematic approach to the problem? Where are the goals, targets, timelines, metrics, and accountability? How can we spend billions of dollars and not have a clear idea of what it is that we're trying to achieve, and not have the measurements to ensure that we're on track? To be honest with you, I don't know how you folks get away with it.
I hope you are finally going to be serious about the problem and that you're going to attack the blight of poverty in a logical and scientific manner, without pandering to special interests or political gain. I'd like to give you my advice.
Let's start with the definition. We're never going to agree on one approach or the other. Some folks understand poverty as inequality, and others, like me, see poverty as insufficiency. Let's measure both of these conceptions of poverty and get on with it. If anyone insists that we not measure absolute poverty because it's “mean-spirited”, or that Canada cannot be compared to third world countries, I have some responses for you. Ask objectors if they really would rather not know how many of their fellow citizens are unable to afford the basic necessities. Ask them if Canadians in general shouldn't know this. Remind them that we compare ourselves to other nations, including poorer nations, all the time in terms of things like GDP per capita, health outcomes, environmental quality, and so on. Why not comparisons of absolute poverty? It's likely that we have much less deprivation than a lot of other countries, but we'll never know until we measure it.
Finally, ask objectors to reread Ed Broadbent's words, as he characterized child poverty in Canada. He didn't say that one-quarter of our children were unequal, or that they were excluded from the mainstream; he said that they went to bed hungry and that they were wasting away. The only way to determine this kind of poverty--the kind that Ed Broadbent was speaking of--would be to use an absolute measure.
I believe that most of us have an absolute conception of poverty when we hear the term or when we personally visualize the problem. I believe that we need to know the extent of this kind of poverty if we're going to have an intelligent policy debate about solving the problem. The folks in Copenhagen who drafted the declaration--most of them, I should say, squarely in the social welfare community--clearly thought that absolute poverty was important enough to measure and eradicate.
Next, we need to have an intelligent discussion in Canada about what our goals should be relating to each type of poverty. I happen to be much more concerned about absolute poverty than I am about relative poverty. I don't know how concerned I am about inequality of income and wealth, unless those outcomes have been the result of force or fraud. However, you'll get lots of different perspectives, lots of different viewpoints on this, and at some point the discussion has to end and the government has to decide what to do. It would be desirable if both levels of government--both federal and provincial--could agree on what they should be doing.
My recommendation on this would be to aggressively go after absolute poverty. Set a goal to cut it in half in 10 years, define it, measure it, get expert opinions about why it's happening, and find the best policies to bring it down to the target level. Make that commitment and keep it.
Obviously, don't stop there. We'd like to see the complete elimination of absolute poverty in Canada within 20 years. What an achievement that would be, and what a model Canada would be for other nations around the world. However, on the way to achieving these goals, there will be a number of real challenges, both technical and political. On the technical side, we really need to take a hard look at the data, particularly the income data, and what it is telling us.