The Poor We Have Always With Us?

First, some numbers: according to Statistics Canada, in 2016, Canadian households spent, on average, $8,784.00 on food, 26% of that on restaurant meals.

In Nova Scotia last year, a single woman on social assistance received $532.00 for housing, $275.00 as a personal allowance and $36.00 for drugs, medical and transportation. A grand total of $10,152.00 for the year. How much do you think she could afford to spend on groceries, let alone on eating out?

The 2017 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia, written, as it has been for years, by Lesley Frank and Christine Saulnier for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), indicates that a lone-parent family with one child received $785.00 per annum less than the same family in 1989, when adjusted for inflation. Low income, lone-parent families with two children had a depth of poverty of $10,312.00 per year and would require an extra $859.00 per month to bring them up to the poverty line.

The child poverty rate in Nova Scotia in 2015, according to the report, fell to 21.6%, as compared to the 22.5% in 2014, and while there are no statistics yet to support it, the federal Canada child benefit (CCB) might have helped in that decrease, especially given that it’s non-taxable. The good thing is that 1,600 children were lifted out of poverty.

On the other hand, the reinstatement of the long-form census has made it possible to zero in on which groups of children are worse off in Nova Scotia, and it’s not at all surprising that more than one third – 34% — of visible minority children live in poverty, including those of African descent, Aboriginal children, and children of immigrants. There are 18 communities in Nova Scotia with poverty rates above 30% — 10 in Cape Breton and 8 throughout the rest of the province. The lowest rate of poverty is in Fall River, while the highest rates — as high as 72% — are in areas with high visible minority populations.

The report card is published under the auspices of Campaign 2000, a public education movement launched in 1989, when the federal Liberal government, through legislation supported by all parties in the House of Commons, promised to eradicate poverty by the year 2000 — a promise that, through some combination of wishful thinking and lack of real effort, was never kept. Poverty persists across this country and here in Nova Scotia, concerned citizens work tirelessly to improve the lot of those living in poverty — fundraising, running school breakfast programs that provide a nourishing meal for thousands of students each morning or organizing Christmas drives ensure all children and their families have a truly merry holiday. Here in Cape Breton, the United Way will soon be holding their Third Annual Gala to raise funds to assist with their objective of decreasing child poverty by 5% in five years.

 

Kelly Regan

Kelly Regan

Meanwhile, the chances of any family on social assistance in Nova Scotia receiving the extra $859.00 a month to bring them up to the poverty line are absolutely minimal, although the Nova Scotia government has introduced changes to the Community Services Act that will provide extra money to assistance recipients, they won’t come into effect until 2019-20. Those on assistance who are working will be allowed to keep $250, rather than $150 of their earnings before any claw-backs, while those unable to work will receive a 5% increase in their assistance checks.

Not all those who work to assist those in poverty are thrilled by these increases, especially since they won’t come into effect until another year has gone by. In a February 7 letter to the editor, Feed Nova Scotia executive director Nick Jennery said that while he sees these as important and welcome changes, they really don’t provide much for those unable to work for various reasons. He doesn’t think a 5% increase in their assistance will make any significant change in their lives. He also thinks that the changes should be introduced now.

On 13 December 2017, Community Services Minister Kelly Regan and Communities, Culture, Heritage, Seniors and Voluntary Sector Minister Leo Glavine announced grant programs for community organizations “that know best what local needs are,” focusing on three areas:

  • Food Security – initiatives that provide Nova Scotians with adequate access to food.
  • Youth Transition – enabling Nova Scotia youth to become independent adults.
  • Transportation – helping Nova Scotians access the transportation they need.

The government will provide $600,000 to fund 12 projects at $50,000 per project and organizations, which have until end-March 2018 to apply, may submit more than one project for consideration. The object is to “build vibrant communities and “is the first initiative of government’s poverty reduction blueprint,” which will see the province provide $20 million over the next four years to “support actions from all levels of government and communities, to work together to help reduce poverty in Nova Scotia.”

Jean-Yves Duclos

Jean-Yves Duclos

I would say it’s a good start with an admirable goal. Reducing poverty should be high on the “to-do” list of any Nova Scotia government, given that our child poverty rates are the highest in Atlantic Canada and third-highest in Canada.

The federal government’s poverty reduction program,“Tackling Poverty Together,” launched in September 2016, might have inspired our provincial government to look seriously at ways to reduce poverty in Nova Scotia. Federal Minister for Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos’ campaign involved a series of meetings and round-tables across the country from February to August, 2017, including four in Nova Scotia, (two in Cape Breton and two in Halifax, although I’m not sure exactly where or with whom) conducted by the Tamarack Institute, a “learning centre to provide research and document real stories, exemplary practice and effective applications for community change.”

This huge undertaking, involving more than 4,900 people who participated by telephone and online, attended round-tables and discussions in all provinces and territories, reported that one in seven Canadians lives in poverty – “more than the populations of Toronto and Montreal combined.” (You can see the full report here.)

 

What the federal government will now do to help eradicate the alarming levels of poverty across the country will be eagerly anticipated. (Interesting to note that the federal Liberals named a guaranteed annual income (GAI) as a priority at their May, 2016 convention, as noted in my 1 May 2017 article on poverty.)

While many see a GAI as the answer to poverty, Armine Yalnizyan, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, suggests that while it “may improve lives by improving income,” governments can also accomplish that by providing access to good and services regardless of one’s income.

Armine Yalnizyan

Armine Yalnizyan

She notes that medicare, hospitals and government-funded schools “reduce poverty and inequality.” Governments, according to Yalnizyan, have used tax cuts as a way to put more money in our pockets, which a basic income would do, but argues that “cash, received as an individual, doesn’t create another unit of affordable housing or create one new child care space.”

Yalnizyan says providing a universal annual income of $10,000 would cost $350 billion or 17.5% of GDP while “raising everyone’s income above the poverty line would cost an estimated $30 billion a year” and that would be “over and above existing programs,” costing taxpayers the equivalent of “four percentage points more in sales taxes across Canada.” But the CCPA Alternative Federal Budget 2017 indicates that for “half the cost of poverty-eliminating basic income ($15 billion), the stock of affordable housing, child care and public transport” could be permanently expanded. As well, “user costs for pharmacare, dental care and post-secondary schooling could be almost eliminated.” All in all, the upshot of Yalnizyan’s proposal is that we need to figure out whether “we’re better off when we have more income, or need less of it.”

A 2016 Angus Reid poll found that while 67% of respondents supported the idea of a guaranteed annual income, 66% were unwilling to pay higher taxes to fund it and 63% felt it would “discourage people from working,” this last percentage rising to 74% among Conservatives and falling to 50% among New Democratic Party supporters. (Although it didn’t  prove true in Canada’s first experiment with guaranteed income, the 1974-78 Mincome Project in Dauphin, Manitoba.)

It will be interesting to see how the next leader of the Conservatives in Ontario will deal with that province’s guaranteed annual income pilot program, which Kristen Tdesco of the Ontario Ministry of Community and Social Services told me currently involves 2,554 people. In Dauphin, the GAI program, initiated by then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Manitoba’s New Democrat Premier Ed Schreyer, was cancelled when the Conservatives came into power.

It’s hard to understand why citizens will donate millions of dollars to assist those struggling to survive on incomes below the poverty line but will not support a system, whatever it happens to be, that would lift people out of poverty and make them contributing citizens (and, yes, taxpayers). It’s a conundrum. Maybe they’re just adhering to the Gospel and doing their part to make sure that “the poor you will always have with you.”

 

 

Dolores Campbell

 

Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.

 

 

 

 

 

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