All I Want for Christmas: Serious Action on Poverty

The signs of Christmas are everywhere and I’m not referring to the lights, the decorations or the concerts. No, actually, I’m thinking more along the lines of the Salvation Army Christmas Kettle Campaign, the CBC’s Light Up A Life Campaign for Feed Nova Scotia, the Christmas Daddies Telethon — those reminders that, for many, Christmas is a day on which the struggle to provide for themselves and their families becomes just a little more acute.

The closing of the ServiCom call center in Sydney is obviously going to add to the number of people who find themselves facing a dismal holiday season (that will become a dismal New Year unless a new owner for the company is found). However, the quick response from Cape Bretoners anxious to assist prompts me to say a heart-felt thanks to those who come forward and are prepared to put in hours of volunteer effort to create a Christmas for those in tough financial straits.

Source: CBC

We don’t require more statistics to realize that, for too many in our wealthy country, poverty is a way of life. However, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ (CCPA) “2017 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia” identified a slight improvement, with 1,600 children lifted out of poverty between 2014 and 2015. Overall, this decrease represented less than a percentage point change, with 21.6% of Nova Scotia children living in poverty. Nova Scotia had the third-highest provincial child poverty rate, and the highest rate in Atlantic Canada.

Nick Jennery, executive director of Feed Nova Scotia, the charitable organization that collects and distributes food to the province’s 150 food banks, told Matt Brand of 95.7 News Radio that Christmas is the agency’s busiest time of year, during which they must deliver around 8,000 kg (18,000 pounds) of food each day. Over the holidays, Jennery said the agency supports 7,000 households.

I’ve written before about food banks and the way they’ve become part and parcel of everyday life for so many Nova Scotians, just as they have for poor people all across this wealthy country of ours. I’ve always felt that there had to be a better way, and of course, my hobby horse is the guaranteed annual income (GAI), like the one introduced in Ontario this year. (Introduced being the operative word — brought in by former premier Kathleen Wynne, the three-year pilot program was cancelled by Doug Ford shortly after he was elected as her successor, cruelly depriving participants of the income that was changing their lives.)

The winter weather that arrived so early this November hit the homeless particularly hard. Whereas, for most of us, it merely meant turning our furnaces on earlier and perhaps a bit more often, for those living on the street, carrying their meager belongings with them each day as they attempt to find shelter or perhaps a hot meal, the cold adds insult to injury. Donations to the various organizations that actually assist the poor increase by leaps and bounds during the Christmas “giving” season, but agencies (like the Salvation Army, local food banks, and organizations like Every Woman’s Centre, Transition House and the Community Homeless Shelter for Men) need financial assistance year-round.

 

All this talk of poverty and its prevalence in our society and how various governments attempt to deal with it piqued my interest in two books reviewed by Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia director of the CCPA, in Atlantic Books Today:  The Age of Increasing Inequality: The Astonishing Rise of Canada’s 1%, by Lars Osberg, professor of economics at Dalhousie University and Organizing The 1%: How Corporate Power Works, by William Carroll, professor of sociology at the University of Victoria and J. P. Sapinski, assistant professor of environmental studies at Université de Moncton.

Saulnier, along with Lesley Frank, is the author of those annual report cards on child and family poverty in NS cited earlier. (In the 2017 edition, they calculated that, adjusting for inflation, a single parent with one child was receiving $785 less per year than the same parent in 1989.)

In reviewing the Osberg and Carroll/Sapinski books, Saulnier, who has been educating people in this province about poverty for years, says they gave her ways to “enhance” her presentation on “why communities should care about income inequality” and what can be done about it.

That inequality, according to Osberg, matters for many reasons – the poverty of the disadvantaged, the growing gap between the poor and the middle class, “escalating consumption” and the fact that “status purchases” are being marketed to everyone, causing growing resentment among those for whom such purchases are well out of reach.

Carroll and Sapinski, for their part, agree with Osberg that “wealth inequality is even worse than income inequality,” arguing that we must see past what the wealthy “own” to what they “control” via their “social status and political influence.” The authors include poverty, homelessness and food insecurity among the “negative impacts of corporate power.” (For most of us, our only exposure to such corporate power — no pun intended — is our experience with Nova Scotia Power, the privatized provincial power utility, with its high-paid top executives.)

Osberg believes “the elimination of poverty is quite within the realm of fiscally feasible policies” and he does the math: it “would cost the top 90% of earners $378 per year to lift as many as 5.2 million Canadians above the poverty line.”

(That made me think of the local group, 100 Women Who Care, whose members donate $100 four times a year to create a a fund that, in the five years of its existence, has contributed $200,000 to 17 local non-profit groups. These women are already contributing more than their fair share, by Osberg’s calculations.)

I emailed Professor Osberg to ask how such a policy could be implemented and he responded:

The calculation was intended to illustrate the fact that it is well within the means of Canadian society to fill the poverty gap – if there were a clear will to do so. As a practical matter, I think the only feasible method is for government to increase taxes and to spend the money necessary to reduce poverty. One could deliver the money by increasing the basic payment level in the Guaranteed Income Supplement, the GST Credit and the Child Tax credit (in their design, these are already GAI type programs and since those payments are already taxed back when the household receives other income, the benefit would go to poor people). As you note, it is true that a change in government can always mean a change in spending priorities. I think we do still want to live in a system where governments can change spending priorities, but it is the responsibility of anti-poverty activists to persuade enough people so that governments change in a pro-poor [my emphasis] direction.

Works for me!

Meanwhile, right here and now, we can open up our pocket books and support those groups who are working to bring Christmas cheer to those less fortunate so that they too can enjoy a Merry Christmas!

 

 

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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