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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

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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.

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative 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.

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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?

9:10 a.m.

Conservative

Lynne Yelich Conservative Blackstrap, SK

That would be really good, and if we can ask witnesses--

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc Yves Lessard

The invitation could first be directed to the parliamentarians.

I will hear you as well, Mr. Ménard.

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

Réal Ménard Bloc 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.

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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?

9:10 a.m.

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--

9:10 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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.

9:10 a.m.

Manager, Policy and Research, Canadian Association of Food Banks

Shawn Pegg

Okay. Merci.

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.

9:20 a.m.

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.

9:20 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc Yves Lessard

Thank you, Messrs. Hellquist and Pegg.

Now we'll hear from the representative of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

9:20 a.m.

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.

Thank you.

9:25 a.m.

Michel Frojmovic Consultant, Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Thanks, Mike.

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.

9:30 a.m.

Acting Deputy Director, Policy, Federation of Canadian Municipalities

Michael Buda

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.

Thank you.

9:30 a.m.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc Yves Lessard

Thank you, Messrs. Frojmovic and Buda.

Now we'll hear from Ms. Monica Townson.

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.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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.

Bloc

The Vice-Chair Bloc 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.

April 17th, 2008 / 9:55 a.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal 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.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal 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.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Liberal Cape Breton—Canso, NS

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