Almost thirty-one years ago, in 1989, all the federally elected politicians representing all political parties, unanimously voted to end child poverty by the new millennium.
Yet here we are, twenty years into that new millennium and according to a report released by Campaign 2000 titled 2020: Setting the Stage for a Poverty-Free Canada, still no significant inroads have been made into reducing poverty, let alone eliminating it. The author writes:
We have missed the opportunity to end poverty for a whole generation of children.
Precarious and low wage work is widespread and social assistance rates remain abysmally low creating a floor that is only one small step above destitution.
The rise in housing costs, food prices, childcare fees and cost of prescription medication along with other necessities means families are left to make difficult choices every day about what they can afford and what they must do without.
On August 21, 2018 the government of Canada released Opportunity for All: Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy, “which targets a 20% reduction in poverty by 2020 and a 50% reduction in poverty by 2030, relative to 2015 levels”.
The government claims that they have already met the first of these goals since the poverty level sits at 9.5 % nationally. Without digging deeper into the issue, it is easy to be lulled into a sense of complacency.
The measure of poverty used by the federal government is called the Market Basket Measure (MBM). The Market Basket Measure (MBM) of low income develops thresholds of poverty based upon the cost of a basket of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other items for individuals and families representing a modest, basic standard of living. (www150.statcan.gc.ca)
However, the MBM is not applicable to the territories or First Nations.
In the Overview of Opportunity for All, it states “Every Canadian deserves a real and fair chance to succeed, no matter where they live or where they come from.” How then does the use of the MBM, show the actual state of poverty in our country?
With the development of the Opportunity for All Strategy the government also established a ten-member National Advisory Council on Poverty comprised of appointed individuals from across the country with expertise and involvement with the various facets of poverty. One of those members is Shane Pelletier, Reaching Home Coordinator with the Provincial Metis Housing Corporation in Saskatoon.
In a telephone conversation with Shane he explained how the government justified to the Advisory Council, using the MBM. It is his understanding that MBM excludes First Nations and the territories because the government is working along side the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), and the Metis National Council (MNC) to develop their own poverty reductions strategies, and they wanted to show respect and honour the sovereignty of the data belonging to those groups.
When asked about his personal feeling towards using this method of identifying poverty, he said that to him it didn’t make sense, if the government is claiming it is a collective measure of poverty in Canada then the data used should reflect all Canadians.
The Advisory Council agrees that this is perhaps not as comprehensive as it is made out to be. Income is only one measure of poverty and poverty has a generational and far-reaching impact.
This strategy is baby-steps and it will take years for full change to be seen.
To use Shane’s analogy, Canada is a large ship, and a large ship takes a long time to turn around.
The goal of the Advisory Council, separate from the government, is not a reduction in poverty, but a “Canada without poverty”.
The report written by Campaign 2000 used a different measure of poverty called the Census Family Low Income Measure which uses information gathered from tax filer data.
This data includes communities and groupings of individuals excluded by the MBM such as First Nations people living on reserve, residents of the territories, people residing in institutions such as hospitals or prisons, and parents who are under the age of 18. Using this measure, which is the approved measure used by UNICEF and OECD, the authors conclude the national child poverty rate to be 18.6%. This is a far different picture from the one the federal government is painting.
The Canada Child Benefit is agreed by all to be one of the most important vehicles to reducing child poverty, but until all the faces of poverty are addressed, it will not disappear. When parents earn only the minimum wage, as is common in rural areas, it is often a ‘toss-up’ between returning to work and paying for childcare or not. Licensed childcare costs anywhere from $700/month to $1000+/month and for minimum wage workers that can relate to one half of their monthly income before taxes. The Government of Saskatchewan is encouraging individuals to open new licensed day homes, but while that may open more childcare spots, it does nothing to address the reality that for individuals earning minimum wage childcare consumes a large chunk of the monthly budget. And when that is coupled with rent and utilities, it is not outlandish to estimate that a family, in which both adults are working for minimum wage would be left with between $600 and $1000 to pay for groceries, clothing, medication, fuel for a vehicle, a vehicle payment, and the myriad of other incidental expenses that many individuals don’t even think about.
As a wealthy country, Canada falls short in the areas which impact poverty: affordable and accessible childcare, income through wages and social supports which is at least on par with the cost of living, healthcare that is affordable including dental and vision, and affordable housing. Canada is the only country in the world with a healthcare system that does not cover prescription drugs. Nearly one in ten Canadians will delay or skip medication for reasons related to cost. (Gundersen et al, 2019, “Prescription medication nonadherence…”,CMAJ). As individuals and as a country we need to look closely at where we are and where we are going. Poverty is not static. It is insidious. As in nature, when one part of an ecosystem is struggling with food and shelter the other parts of the ecosystem begin to suffer, so to it is with society.