Mr. Speaker, I am rising to speak because of my strong concerns regarding new problems that are being created by our focused concentration on deficit reduction. The Liberal government has done extremely well in reducing the deficit, bringing confidence back to our country and ensuring at the same time low inflation and low mortgage rates. In all, our Liberal government has been the catalyst in re-creating a healthy, vibrant and competitive Canadian economy.
Low mortgage rates are putting money back into the pockets of consumers and are greatly contributing to increased housing starts in Canada. However low mortgage rates are an advantage only to those who can afford to purchase a house.
It was crucial for our Liberal government to follow the path of fiscal responsibility, for by staying this course we will have a balanced budget for the first time in over 20 years and will be able to start reducing the federal debt in the next millennium a mere three years from now.
During the 1993 federal election the Liberal Party promised that if elected as government it would put Canada's fiscal house in order. I am proud to stand in the House today as a member of the governing party caucus to say that the Liberal government has kept its word. Consequently Canada's fiscal situation is the envy of the industrialized world.
Though the course we took was necessary, it has also resulted in hurt for many Canadians across our great country. Hurt has resulted in human misery for an increase in the number of Canadians who now live in poverty. Hurt has resulted in many Canadians facing difficulties in getting out of a cycle of dependency that is both demeaning and destructive.
Today I would like to talk about poverty. I encourage the government to start working toward improving the situation of the Canadian underclass which statistics say is increasing in our country, and the quality of life of many people who do not just need help, but also need a voice.
In January 1996 at the Fraser forum, Chris Sarlo defined the "Basic Needs Poverty Lines" as follows:
A person is defined as poor if they can, at best, afford only the basic physical necessities of life. These necessities include: an appetizing and nutritionally complete diet; apartment rental accommodation with the number of rooms appropriate to family size and with the full complement of essential furnishings, household supplies and telephone service; clothing which is purchased new, appropriate to the season and with replacement rates assuming normal wear and laundering; a full range of regular, preventive and emergency health care, including personal hygiene, vision, and dental care; and essential transportation linking one's shelter to other basic needs. In all cases, the standard of quality of each of the basic needs is that which is considered minimally acceptable in Canadian society.
In a country as rich and prosperous as Canada, all Canadian people are entitled to at least these minimal basic needs. But if we take these needs one by one, we realize how different reality is. According to Statistics Canada, my riding of Vancouver East has within it the poorest postal code area in all of Canada. In many areas in my riding, poverty is rampant and the daily reality of life for people is often as follows.
An appetizing and nutritional complete diet. A large number of children in my riding have one meal a day and this is in school. Due to the unsafe nature of many areas of my inner city riding, some schools in my constituency have joined together to start the Kidsafe program, which exists to feed and protect local children. This community initiative, which offers children a safe place to go to during school breaks and after school, began after a young child in my riding, who had no place to go to after school hours, was physically assaulted.
A school's responsibility is not to babysit children. Children generally are better off at home where their parents are. However, in repeated cases across Canada, many children are better off at school and away from their homes. For Vancouver's schools that offer the Kidsafe program, this service is very costly and demanding. However, the schools' principals and staff are to be commended for taking such action and helping children survive in a safe environment.
Apartment rental. Decent housing is extremely important for all of us. How can you have a decent life without decent housing? The federal government is currently committed to $2 billion a year to subsidize 661,000 social housing units across the country. This program has provided a large number of people, many of whom are children, single mothers, elderly, disabled and people on social assistance with a decent and affordable place to live. Unfortunately the government is devolving to the provinces the authority for administering this program.
Before I entered politics, I was involved in social housing. I administered Casa Serena, a senior citizens home that was built by the Italian Cultural Centre Society of Vancouver with the support of the federal and provincial governments. I was responsible for interviewing the people who applied for accommodation and I was appalled to learn of the condition of certain housing facilities.
Recently I visited the inner city area of Vancouver East and I can assure the House the skid row hotels are places not fit for human beings. Over 10,000 Vancouverites live in what is said to be the most expensive housing in Canada. These rooms are only 80 square feet and have just a bed and hotplate and rent for an average of $375 a month. Vancouver East offers concrete evidence that the government should stay in the social housing field.
Clothing which is purchased new. Many of the students of the inner city schools in my riding never wear new clothing. They have to count on the charity of others and only if they are lucky will they have proper clothing to wear.
A full range of regular, preventive and emergency health care. These benefits are available for all those who are on social assistance, but the moment they start working, they lose all these benefits. That is one of the reasons the working poor remain poor. They are people who work for minimum wages and have to pay for all their benefits, including a portion of child care costs, dental and drug costs, and in B.C. medical insurance premiums. Essential transportation. The same problems encountered with benefits is also encountered with transportation. The working poor are not earning enough to meet their basic expenses.
It is time to take these problems into serious consideration. This year the United Nations has given Canada a low ranking for its record on child poverty and suicide. In June 1996 the UNICEF program of nations report was released indicating that Canada has the second highest number of poor children among the 18 industrialized countries. This is unnecessary and I strongly believe that the government has a moral obligation to find workable solutions to resolve this grave problem.
The United States has the largest number of poor children, Finland has the fewest. Among our poor children, the majority are aboriginal who at times live in abysmal conditions. Among aboriginals, poverty is much higher than among other Canadians, suicide is seven times more common, infant mortality twice as high and
the high school dropout rate is 50 per cent higher. What a waste of human potential.
Some of my colleagues and I have been very concerned about the children of the working poor. After much work, we were relieved to learn that in the last budget the Minister of Finance partially addressed the problem by increasing the maximum annual benefit from $500 to $750 in July 1997 and to $1,000 in 1998.
When fully phased in, this working income supplement will provide an additional $250 million annually to an estimated 700,000 low income working families, one-third of which are single parent families. I was also extremely pleased to find in the 1996-97 budget a whole section devoted to increased support for children.
The coming budget must continue the trend toward helping the working poor and children living in poverty. My ideal budget would include increased assistance to those in need through tax credits; continuation of benefits for a period of time to those people who join the work force at minimum wage; assistance to make people with disabilities full participants in Canadian society.
Early prevention programs through Health Canada. It is important to help children start their life healthy and in a good environment. This can partly be accomplished through the continuation and expansion of programs like the Community Action Plan for Children and Head Start. Both of these programs have been very successful in teaching poor families about nutrition and helping them curb violence and in empowering many parents in their parental role.
Finally, a national child care program. I know that at times the federal government has to work with the provincial and territorial governments to implement programs. The negotiations which are currently taking place between governments is heartwarming. Hopefully we will be able to work together and alleviate some of the problems that touch people in need.
After all, in a 1994 Angus Reid poll, 89 per cent of Canadians agreed that child poverty was a priority for government and in 1995, prior to the federal budget, Canadians listed child poverty as one of the top three priorities of government. Let me remind the House that wherever there is a poor child there is at least a poor parent.
The recent report presented by the Standing Committee on Finance speaks to the concern I express and I would like to thank its members on behalf of my constituents.