Poverty is, sadly, still very much a growing problem in Canada. Since the unanimous motion by Ed Broadbent in 1989 to eradicate poverty in Canada by the year 2000, very little has been done by successive Liberal and Conservative governments to actually reach this goal.
In the intervening years since 1989, Canada has been proud of its position as the ”best” and “second best” country in the world in which to live, according to various United Nations measurements. However, Canadians living in poverty, including an alarming number of children, are no better off than they were in 1989.
How can this be in a country as blessed as Canada, with natural resources, a skilled and educated workforce? How can we tolerate a situation where our neighbours are struggling to find shelter, put food on the table, and take care of their families?
In my office is a poster that say, “All it takes is political will”. That poster was created to commemorate Ed Broadbent's motion in 1989, which every member of Parliament voted to support. Yet here we are in 2016 and very little has changed. We obviously did not have the political will. Our governments have failed to make poverty reduction a priority.
Poverty reduction is a complex and challenging issue, but we must not let that paralyze us. Too much time has already been wasted by hand-wringing and repetitive consultations that do not produce any discernible improvements for people living in poverty.
Bill C-245 offers a turnkey proposal that the federal government can readily adopt and implement. It calls for the creation of an officer for the commissioner for poverty reduction, as well as a national council for the elimination of poverty and social exclusion.
These are concrete steps that would focus efforts in poverty reduction in a way that is measurable, accountable, and cumulative. Governments have often said that we cannot afford to do any number of things that would reduce poverty. On the contrary, we cannot afford to not do anything.
I would like to give credit where credit is due. The government has put in place the Canada child benefit and increased the guaranteed income supplement by 10%. Unfortunately, these measures, by themselves, are not sufficient to eradicate poverty in Canada in any meaningful way. The Liberals' Bill C-26, which is supposed to increase retirement security for all Canadians by improving the Canada pension plan, actually omits some of the most vulnerable from the enhancement: women who take time out to have kids and people living with disabilities. Whether this omission was an oversight or deliberate, the Liberals have refused to fix the bill, thereby doing absolutely nothing for two of the most vulnerable groups in society.
I come from the great riding of Saskatoon West, a diverse riding that, unfortunately, is no stranger to poverty, and there is a very high cost to poverty. In Saskatchewan, Poverty Costs, a coalition of community-based organizations, calculated that the economic cost of poverty in Saskatchewan was $3.8 billion a year.
Of course, the costs of poverty go beyond the dollars and cents spent on maintaining Canada's social safety net. The lost opportunity costs and the consequences of growing inequality among our residents impact all of us. In addition, poverty costs Saskatchewan $420 million a year in heightened health care service usage. Poverty also causes us to spend between $50 million and $120 million a year more than we would otherwise spend on our criminal justice system.
The same report also found that one in 10 of our population lacked the income needed to afford basic necessities. For a parent working full-time, minimum wage pays just over $20,000 per year. That is almost $15,000 below the poverty line for a family of four. Poverty affects us unequally and the numbers are shocking: 17% of Canadian children live in poverty, 33% of immigrant children, and 64% of first nations children.
Some of Saskatchewan's population, including women, children, newcomers, indigenous peoples, people living with disabilities, and those in rural areas are at greater risk of living in poverty and face systemic barriers that impede their efforts to rise above the poverty line.
Health disparities due to poverty are a direct result of substandard living conditions, inadequate access to nutritional food, and increased stress associated with making ends meet. The stresses of living in poverty can also be deadly.
In Saskatoon, low-income adults were 4.5 times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts and 15 times more likely to attempt suicide.
In Saskatchewan, and across the country, costs of living are rising, but wages and salaries are not necessarily keeping pace.
In 2012, Saskatchewan had the second highest inflation rate in the country, and yet, still had the second lowest minimum wage.
The good news is that, overall, there is an increased public understanding about the social determinants of health, and growing support for addressing the underlying causes of poor health. Some 94% of Saskatchewan residents support reducing poverty, with 89% supporting a provincial approach to poverty reduction in Saskatchewan.
Therefore, we had high hopes in Saskatchewan when the provincial government adopted a poverty reduction strategy in 2014. Unfortunately, the Saskatchewan Party has now backed away from this priority, at a time when it is needed most.
The evidence shows that working to reduce poverty in the first place costs less than paying to respond to the effects of poverty later. If we needed proof that poverty is growing instead of decreasing, we just have to look at last week's headlines.
According to HungerCount 2016, a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use in Canada, Saskatchewan has seen one of the largest increases in the number of people accessing a food bank since last year. The percentage of children using food banks is highest in Saskatchewan. It represents 45% of everyone served.
Steve Compton, the CEO of the Regina Food Bank, added that a job is no guarantee against food bank use. Nearly one in six households helped in Canada are working, yet still need a food bank to make ends meet. A lot of this has to do with the fact that low-wage and precarious jobs with no benefits are the only job growth our economy is seeing. It is no wonder that Canadians continue to rely on food banks, and yet, the finance minister has said that we should all just get used to job churn.
The Liberal government needs to acknowledge that poverty is growing, and use the levers it has to encourage stable, long-term jobs, instead of shrugging its shoulders. A $15 federal minimum wage would be a good start.
I am very proud to say that in my riding, four progressive employers have already committed to paying their employees a living wage. A living wage makes a huge difference for families and individuals and their communities. A truly progressive government would understand this and act accordingly.
Last week, Campaign 2000 released its annual report card on child and family poverty. It is heartbreakingly sad that an organization whose goal it was to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000 is not only still in existence today but that they are farther than ever from their stated goaI. After decades of advocacy for children and families in poverty, Campaign 2000 is still calling on the federal government to create a national anti-poverty plan.
Its 2016 national report card, “A Road Map to Eradicate Child and Family Poverty”, provides the latest statistics on child and family poverty in Canada, and clear recommendations for federal government action and leadership to end child and family poverty.
Bill C-245 can be the first step. It has already been studied at committee, and the Minister of Families, Children, and Social Development has acknowledged it is an excellent bill.
The Liberals have stated many times in the House, and at various committees, that the federal government has a role to play in reducing poverty in Canada, and that Canada needs a long-term, collaborative strategy to combat poverty.
Safe and affordable housing, affordable child care, accessible health services, a living wage, and a basic income for everyone are all important factors that contribute to the well-being of all Canadians.
It is my hope this excellent bill will be passed without delay, and it will be part of a truly comprehensive and collaborative strategy that will finally tackle all the different factors that contribute to poverty in this country.