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 banks.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • 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

9:30 a.m.


The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard

Thank you, Messrs. Frojmovic and Buda.

Now we'll hear from Ms. Monica Townson.

April 17th, 2008 / 9:30 a.m.

Monica Townson Research Associate, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, As an Individual

Thank you very much.

First of all, I should make clear that I'm not here representing the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. I'm a self-employed independent consultant, although with my research I am associated with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. However, I'm not here to represent them today.

Thank you very much for inviting me to appear before you. I think you're doing some very important work here and I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to your deliberations.

As I'm sure you know, the United Nations established the period from 1996 to 2007 as the decade for the eradication of poverty. Countries around the world are now implementing anti-poverty strategies, some of them very successfully. Your work at this committee could eventually result in the development of such strategies in Canada, and I think that would be a very exciting prospect.

I was asked to focus today on women and poverty, which is what I will do. I think it's essential that we do look at that aspect of poverty if we're going to have any success in reducing or alleviating poverty. That may not be a popular aspect of poverty in some quarters, because gender-based analysis seems to have gone out of style these days. You probably remember when we used to talk about the feminization of poverty; that phrase signified that poverty was primarily an issue for women, because the inequality women faced in our society and in our economy was a major contributing factor to the high rate of low income that women experienced.

Talking about the feminization of poverty did go out of style, and what we focus on now is child poverty. I think people may have thought that women had achieved equality, so we didn't need to worry about them anymore, but we do talk a lot about child poverty. Of course child poverty is vitally important, because children who start out their lives in poverty may not be able to escape from that poverty trap, so it's a very serious issue. We should remember that children are poor because their parents are poor, and many of those parents are women who are raising children on their own.

Child poverty, when you measure it by Statistics Canada's after-tax low-income cut-off, currently stands at 11.7%, and that was a 2005 number. The low income rate of women who are lone parents using the same measure was 29.1%. The low income rate for older women--seniors--who are on their own was 20.3%. That was up by more than three percentage points from the year before. In fact, the low income rate for unattached older women has varied between 17% and 27% for the last 20 years, with no sign of a downward trend at all.

We have federal programs, of course, such as old age security and guaranteed income supplements, that have done quite a lot in bringing down the low income rate among seniors. In fact, the rate is now 6.1%, compared with 9.8% in 1996. But when you apply a gender analysis to that number, it doesn't look quite so glowing. In fact, the low income rate for senior women is more than double that for senior men. In 2005, just 3.2% of men aged 65 and older had low incomes, compared with 8.4% of women in the same age group.

It may strike you that those two groups of women who have such high rates of low income--women who are lone parents, heads of families, and senior women on their own--do not have the benefit of a spouse or partner. Could it be that women must count on the income of a man to raise them out of poverty? What happened to women's economic autonomy?

Many people seem to believe that the solution to poverty is a job--if we could only get those lone-parent mothers working, they wouldn't be poor anymore. Finding a job is not necessarily the solution to women's poverty, because you have to look at the kinds of jobs women do: 40% of women who have jobs are employed in what we call non-standard work arrangements. That includes part-time work, temporary jobs, casual work, contract work, and own-account self-employment, which is self-employment without any employees, and 40% of women's jobs are those kinds of jobs. Just 29% of men's jobs are those kinds of jobs.

These are the kinds of jobs that are often poorly paid, without pensions or benefits, and with little or no job security. For instance, Canadian studies of wage rates—and these are based on hourly wage rates—show seasonal workers earn 28% less than their permanent counterparts, casual workers earn 24% less, and those using employment agencies, hired through temporary help agencies, earn 40% less than their counterparts.

In case you think women are working part-time because they're caring for their families, one-third of employed women in the main child-bearing years—that's age 25 to 44—are working part-time because they couldn't find full-time jobs. About the same percentage of women in that age group work part-time because they're caring for children. Of course, women with children need affordable quality child care before they can confidently consider employment, and in many cases that's not available.

When women lose their jobs, they're unlikely to get employment insurance benefits. Back in the 1980s, 70% of unemployed women got UI benefits. Then in 1996 the rules were changed and the program was renamed to employment insurance. Now only 32% of unemployed women, compared with 40% of unemployed men, get employment insurance benefits, which replace just 55% of their usual earnings. In some cases they don't get them because they haven't worked enough hours in the previous 12 months to qualify for benefits. Some of them had exhausted their benefits before they found another job. Some had quit a previous job for reasons not allowed in the EI Act. But many of them hadn't worked in the past 12 months even though they might have been long-term participants in the paid workforce, paying into the EI program, which they are now required to do from the first dollar of their earnings.

Denial of EI benefits to women workers most certainly does contribute to women's poverty. The fact that low income rates for female lone parents who don't have a job is 82% indicates how important that is.

Anti-poverty strategies could address women's poverty in many ways. For instance, minimum wages could be increased and employment standards laws could apply to temporary workers and others in non-standard jobs. You may have seen the recent review of part III of the Canada Labour Code that was done by Professor Harry Arthurs. He explains in great detail, with detailed recommendations, how the Labour Code could apply to those in non-standard jobs to improve their situation.

In the U.K., for instance, part of its anti-poverty strategy is called A New Deal for Lone Parents. That's a special program for people who are lone parents—almost all of them women—that focuses on one-on-one counselling from a personal adviser who can provide specific advice on finding a job, arranging child care, and getting training.

Of course, many specific anti-poverty strategies fall under provincial jurisdiction. You're charged, as I know, with what the federal government can do, and there are a number of things. Let me just suggest a few of them.

It could review the EI program to see why so many people are denied benefits. The EI people claim that 80% of those who qualify for benefits according to the EI rules actually get them. But that's not the point, because if you exclude all those who are disqualified for various reasons, which is what HRSDC does, it stands to reason that most of those who are left will get benefits. What we want to know is why the EI rules exclude so many people in the first place. The EI program could be revamped, with new rules for qualifying and for calculating benefits, among other things. Detailed recommendations are outlined in the report that I did with Kevin Hayes called Women and the Employment Insurance Program. The recommendations in there are based very much on the recommendations that came from this committee, which did a very comprehensive report on employment insurance not too long ago.

The federal government could propose an amendment to the Canada Pension Plan to allow for a dropout for family caregiving responsibilities similar to the one that's in there for child care, so that women—and it is almost always women—who have to retire early from paid employment to care for frail, elderly, or disabled family members are not penalized when it comes to calculating their CPP retirement pension.

We could also look at the level of OAS and GIS combined--our basic guaranteed income for seniors--because for a single individual, the maximum amount available from those two programs is still below the after-tax LICO. Changes here could help those senior women on their own who have such high rates of low income.

I've left with the clerk a number of references to reports I've done over the recent years suggesting various options to reduce poverty among older women. And I'm sure there are lots of other possibilities.

Now I see that my time is up, so thank you very much for your attention.

9:40 a.m.


The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard

Thank you, Ms. Townson.

Now we'll move on to Mr. Chris Sarlo, professor of economics at Nipissing University. You have 10 minutes to give your evidence, Mr. Sarlo.

First, since you are giving your evidence by videoconference, I want to ensure that you can hear us clearly. Is that the case?

9:45 a.m.

Professor Chris Sarlo Professor, Department of Economics, Nipissing University, As an Individual

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.

9:55 a.m.


The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard

Mr. Sarlo, you've exceeded the time allotted to you. Thank you. You'll probably have the opportunity to complete your remarks during the questions.

We'll now move on to the question period. Each parliamentarian will have the opportunity to ask you questions in two or three different rounds, depending on the time we have.

The first round of questions will be a round of seven minutes. We'll start with Mr. Cuzner.

9:55 a.m.


Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.

To all our witnesses today, certainly know that you hold the respect of the entire committee for your commitment to the issue of poverty and for taking the time to come and share with us your experience and insight into this very important issue.

Perhaps I might start first with the food bank and some of the household characteristics that you track now. Mr. Hellquist, you indicated that specifically food banks in Regina, but I would think others as well, are looking at taking a more engaging role regarding counselling and referring and what have you. When we talk about tracking some of the clients you currently respond to, do you see an opportunity to glean additional information from this? Are we able to measure other indicators that might be of benefit to us? Our initial discussions here are about trying to get the pertinent indicators, things like those who come to the food banks who have health challenges, mental health challenges, maybe disabilities. Do you see that this might be an opportunity to further garner other information?

9:55 a.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Regina and District Food Bank, Canadian Association of Food Banks

Wayne Hellquist

Yes, most definitely, I think it's an opportunity. As I indicated earlier, these are the types of things I think food banks are starting to investigate in a great deal more depth. Certainly we've just completed two research studies of our clientele, one of which was designed to determine exactly who they are and what issues they're dealing with, their housing situations, their health care situations, their employment situations, where their income is coming from, so we can gain a better understanding of the clientele—

9:55 a.m.


Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Was it specifically Regina that did this?

9:55 a.m.

Chief Executive Officer, Regina and District Food Bank, Canadian Association of Food Banks

Wayne Hellquist

That's correct. But it's also happening in other food banks. Food banks have been around for about 25 years. We have a very good relationship with the people who use the food banks, and an opportunity, I think, to use food banks to be that portal into other services, and certainly for the collection of very relevant, on-the-ground data of people in our communities who are hungry and who live in poverty.

9:55 a.m.


Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

You find that's a trend you're able to gain...?

9:55 a.m.

Manager, Policy and Research, Canadian Association of Food Banks

Shawn Pegg

Certainly there is a network of large, well-developed food banks that are able to collect that information, because they can put the manpower into it. The trick would be getting similar information in rural areas, small towns, where food banks don't have the same kind of manpower. It's definitely something we are developing.

9:55 a.m.


Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

And expertise, I would think, too.

For the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, with your quality of life measurement, are you specifically able...? What's been noted by the committee so far is that poverty in urban areas is different from the poverty suffered in rural areas, and certainly with where we've gone with the price per barrel now, people will be transportation poor in coming weeks and months, where driving to a minimum wage job just doesn't make a whole lot of sense. There are those disincentives.

Are you confident in your ability to measure rural poverty? Are there specific measurements for rural poverty?

10 a.m.

Consultant, Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Michel Frojmovic

Right now there aren't. The only exception is in some larger municipalities, in terms of their geography, that include rural areas. The one we're in right now is an example of that.

In principle, the framework we have would be applicable to rural communities, but there are always issues. The way Statistics Canada collects data would be slightly different. I guess it's more a question of resources. These 22 communities account for 50% of the population. FCM has a membership of over 1,700. So it would just be working with a much larger number of communities.

The answer is that it's certainly possible, but it would involve a different set of measures. Because the project is membership-driven, what we define is partly driven by what these members want to see measured. So the issue is the example you just gave. It doesn't make sense anymore to drive 30 kilometres to a job and use a tank of gas--or it won't be. That's where a variable could come up, and it's inherently measurable.

10 a.m.


The Vice-Chair Yves Lessard

Ms. Sgro, I believe you want to speak.

10 a.m.


Judy Sgro York West, ON

Ms. Townson, I'm very happy to see you here. I congratulate you for the work you do on behalf of all Canadians.

I want to specifically talk about the issue of women. One of our previous presenters, Statistics Canada, clearly outlined that women who are having children are at economic risk. Until the world changes--and hopefully it doesn't--women are the producers of the children of the future and they're naturally going to have far less time to spend in the workforce, so their pensions and their levels of education will be very much affected.

You've looked at Sweden and Ireland. How do they compensate for the fact that women are the caregivers of the children of the family or the elderly parents? From any of the work you've done, has any country recognized the difference that will always be there and come up with any innovative ideas on how to compensate for that difference from a monetary perspective--other than by giving counselling and that kind of thing?

You can call it a gender difference or whatever you like, but there's always going to be a specific difference between the amount of money a woman earns and what a man earns.