I'm Sylvia Hall. I'm here to represent Canadian Pensioners Concerned. CPC was founded in 1969. We're a national and provincial voluntary membership-based organization of “mature Canadians”--I like that phrase--committed to preserving and enhancing a humanitarian vision of life, but for all citizens of all ages, not just seniors.
We do want to thank the committee for taking the time to talk directly to Canadians about the challenge we all face in trying to reduce and, we hope, ultimately eliminate poverty among the citizens of this country.
We apologize for the late submission of our brief, so you do not have it translated, but we only learned on May 21 that we'd been given standing.
Our brief addresses the questions you've raised in the order they've been posed to witnesses.
First, how do you think poverty should be measured? Poverty is measured in every society based upon its own values of the kind of society it wants to be. The people who are excluded from the social and economic life expect it to be there for all its residents. A child in Canada does not have to be in the identical social and physical situation of a child in Darfur to be deemed to be poor. Most Canadians recognize that we have many people who are poor, homeless, under-housed, or undernourished, and they cannot wait while we discuss and study measurements for poverty.
Some economists have argued that there is an absolute dollar amount that can define those who are poor and that poverty is not a condition relative to the rest of society. If we accept this argument, then the poorest people in the world would all have the same income and living conditions no matter where they live. This is clearly an absurd approach and has been rejected by the vast majority of those concerned with the issue.
The best measure we have at the moment is the Statistics Canada low income cut-off. LICO has been used by policy activists, analysts, and the public as a reasonable and reliable measure to show those who are substantially worse off than most Canadians. Governments must stop debating how to measure poverty, use what we have, and get on with the task at hand.
Second, you asked what role the federal government should play. It obviously must be engaged in tackling this serious and economic issue, but no government or aboriginal leadership can stand aside. The federal government must clearly state its commitments, goals, and objectives and be prepared to listen and respond to other governments, communities, and especially the aboriginal communities and their leaders.
It must commit to a process informed by those living in poverty. It needs to recognize that government policies, practices, and programs, either directly or even indirectly, have an impact on the poor. It needs to ensure that when it funds community initiatives, those are based on community needs identified by the community and not by remote decision-makers.
You ask what mechanisms can facilitate cooperation. The process that led to the Kelowna accord had the potential to be a very good model for the creation of an intergovernmental, cooperative approach to the reduction of poverty. It was a negotiated partnership between the key actors. The federal-provincial-territorial and aboriginal meetings are a model that can and must be used if a poverty reduction strategy is going to work.
We need to have the public as well as policy-makers informed about practices that work now and will move people out of poverty. Do not waste time and effort when we know there are models in Canada and around the world that have made a difference.
You ask if a joint federal-provincial-territorial response is necessary--obviously, yes--and what the target should be. We must have clear plans of action that ensure collaboration across all levels of government. Yearly budgets should be set, with clear allocations established to meet each target program.
The plans must look at and take account of the factors that we know are critical in determining poverty: gender, disability, illness, age, racism, and immigrant status. The plans must include, among other things, raising the social assistance support program to at least the LICO.
We cannot emphasize enough the importance of housing. Plans should ensure the availability of affordable housing in all communities. Bring Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation back into the creation of social and affordable housing, including support for the co-operative housing sector, which targets mixed-income units. Subsidized housing must be available, but the supports must not be structured to penalize persons re-entering the labour force by raising the cost of their housing with each increase in income.
We need targets and we need to agree. A plausible one is 25 in 5, a reduction of 25% of the poverty rate over the next five years, with a commitment to five-year renewals after that. It cannot be just a once-only effort.
You ask what more the federal government could do to reduce poverty among children, lone parents, women, aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, recent immigrants, and unattached individuals. We would add a qualifier to “unattached” and include a particular reference to older unattached women, whose poverty rate is very significant and distressing given their extreme vulnerability, and we are troubled by the word “more”, as we see very little being done by the federal government at the moment.
However, in response to the question, we would suggest that you look at each identified group and, using the knowledge we have now about the determinants of poverty, put action plans in place to eliminate them. We find it hard to believe that the federal government does not have all the information needed to address these particular populations.
You ask how the federal government's contribution should be measured. The most important aspect, in our opinion, is that every policy, program, and practice should be reviewed through an anti-poverty policy lens. This kind of policy lens has been developed for such things as elder abuse. Some hospitals use it to deal with their geriatric patients. It ensures that all existing and new policies, practices, and programs contribute to the reduction of poverty rather than exacerbate it.
Examples that do exacerbate are taxation policies that target people with capital but do nothing to help those without, home renovation policies that help those with homes but do nothing for those who are homeless or living on the margins of society, and infrastructure programs that fail to give high priority to public transportation.
We are concerned by our sense that this question separates the actions taken solely by the federal government from those taken by other critical actors. Poverty is a national problem, and anti-poverty programs and policies require cooperation and collective action by all levels of government, the public and private sectors, and all communities.
Indicators must, therefore, be broader than just the measure of one government's actions. We suggest that the investment in the development of an anti-poverty policy lens and its mandated use across the federal government would be a very useful first step in this regard.
You ask if federal resources could be deployed more effectively. We suggest, again, that the quick development of an anti-poverty program, policy, and practice lens would give very quick and practical answers to these questions. It would show and highlight those activities that are not productive and those that have potential with perhaps minor improvements. We would learn where we as a society are failing and where we must develop new and more effective policies and programs.
You ask what strategies our organization is using to reduce poverty. CPC is an organization of older Canadians who have long memories. We've been concerned with this issue for many years, even before the 1989 parliamentary commitment to alleviate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. What a disgrace. And we all should shoulder it. We must infuse a sense of urgency to this.
CPC is working with anti-poverty groups, such as Campaign 2000 and the Anti-Poverty Coalition, to cajole, pester, and engage governments at all levels to tackle this social issue. We write briefs. We hold public forums. We work with homeless groups to develop housing strategies in rural communities.
We do whatever we can to raise public awareness and engagement on the issue. We're often frustrated because people do not want to hear the facts, but we are also often delighted when policy-makers express their interest in and commitment to solving this problem.
The very fact that this committee of the House of Commons is raising the issue of poverty and is talking to the communities involved gives us hope that now, at last, something substantive will happen. We wish you every success in your work.