Poverty in Canada

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CPJ’s Envisioning Canada Without Poverty campaign has ended. We thank CPJ members and supporters for contacting their MPs and sharing the important message that poverty must be addressed. Thanks to you, the campaign was a success. For new opportunities to get involved in the fight against poverty, check out CPJ’s new campaign: Dignity for All.

In 1989, the House of Commons passed a unanimous resolution calling for child poverty to be eliminated in Canada by the year 2000. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of that momentous occasion, not much has changed in Canada.

Despite the fact that Canada is a financially prosperous country, poverty still persists. In fact, the National Council of Welfare recently noted that poverty rates have not changed significantly in the past twenty-five years in Canada, with the exception of seniors. They benefited from targeted programs that succeeding in lowering their rate of poverty. For the rest of Canada’s poor, the past 25 years have not made a difference. And in fact, with cuts to Canada’s social supports, things have arguably gotten worse.

In poverty, as with everything else, what you define is what gets addressed. How do we define poverty in Canada? Who is poor? What is it like to be poor in Canada? What do we mean when we talk about reducing poverty?

What does poverty look like in Canada?

The most visible aspect of poverty is low income. While Canada doesn’t have an official poverty definition, the Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) rate measured by Statistics Canada is often used to gauge poverty and how it changes over time. In 2005, 10.8% of all Canadians had after-tax incomes lower than the LICO – more than 3.4 million people. This is clearly a significant challenge for Canada!

But poverty is more than low income – it’s also lack of access to a sustainable livelihood. It includes being forced to make hard choices between basic necessities like food, shelter, clothing, heat and other utilities. Poverty is also about well-being, including access to health, pharmacare, dental care, education, safe and rewarding work, and the opportunity to engage in community life and activities that are good for the soul.

How deep is poverty in Canada?

The depth of the problem of poverty is reflected in hunger and housing insecurity. In just one month of 2006, 753,458 Canadians needed to use a food bank, and fully one third of Canadian food banks had difficulty meeting demand. Food banks reported that while 53.5% of recipients received their primary income from social assistance, 13.4% of recipients have employment earnings as their primary source of income.

Meanwhile, in 2001, 735,275 Canadian households spent more than 50% of their income on rent. Currently in Ontario alone, there are more than half as many people on waiting lists for affordable housing as there are non-profit housing units in Ontario. Street counts of homelessness have increased dramatically in urban cities and have indicated troubling trends. In Edmonton, for instance, the homeless count in 2006 reported 2,618 homeless people, an increase of 19% in two years.

Who is poor in Canada?

Poverty cuts across Canada’s social boundaries: anyone can be poor. Some people are poor for a short time in their lives, others find themselves caught in persistent poverty. Income insecurity and inequality touches even more Canadians: many worry that they are only a missed paycheque or two away from poverty themselves.

However, while poverty can strike anyone, it is not an equal opportunity offender. Certain demographics and groups are over-represented among those living in poverty. Immigrants and newcomers, aboriginals, and people with disabilities generally experience higher rates of poverty. Women are more likely to be poor than men, and in particular female single parents. Some groups which are already vulnerable to marginalization are therefore doubly at risk of social exclusion because of poverty.

What causes poverty?

Even for an individual, the cause of poverty is not always simple and straight-forward. At the national level, the causes of poverty are even more complex and hard to unravel. Factors that contribute to poverty range from the personal to the structural. This can make poverty a challenge to respond to: initiatives that target one type or one aspect of poverty may be highly successful in achieving a specific goal but with limited impact on poverty in general.

For this reason, a range of programs, policies and responses from government is necessary. Support and contributions from other sectors are also required, including volunteer and charitable organizations, businesses, faith communities and family and friends.

Some poverty arises from circumstances that are difficult to control, such as the loss of health or the death of a spouse. In these cases, government programs and policies need to be supportive, helping people to maintain a sustainable livelihood through a difficult period.

But poverty can also arise from structural problems. In these cases, structures, laws and policies need to be changed. Examples include the affordability of housing, the adequacy of employment insurance, access to health, education and training, and the lack of living wages from employment.

Societal issues like racism and sexism can also contribute to poverty. In this case, government policy might be limited in changing the broader context, but governments can be pro-active in limiting harm or helping groups to become self-sufficient.

By adopting a multi-pronged strategy with initiatives that address these different factors of poverty, governments can make a real impact for people living in poverty.

What is the impact of poverty?

Poverty takes an individual and social toll – people may become withdrawn, depressed, anxious, hopeless. They may feel marginalized and isolated, and robbed of the opportunity to contribute as meaningfully to society as they would like to. Poverty has been recognized as a social determinant of health, and there is some evidence that societies with significant inequalities experience more health problems. All of this can put strain on families and on communities. Poverty can be time-consuming, preventing parents from spending quality time with their children, or preventing people from participating in their communities as fully as possible.

Poverty also has an economic cost. These costs include the impact on our health care system, loss of productivity and increased policing and judicial costs as social breakdown results in crime. Recent studies have demonstrated that when poverty, affordable housing, and income security are not dealt with, Canadian governments must spend significantly more in managing the symptoms. Meanwhile, the Nordic countries have proven that equality can generate economic vitality.

Poverty undermines the right of every person to live with dignity, as an image bearer of God, to participate in society, and to meet basic needs. It is therefore our collective responsibility to respond to the problem of poverty.

Who is responsible for solving poverty?

Everyone has a part to play in responding to poverty. This includes individuals, voluntary and charitable organizations, faith communities, labour unions, businesses and other organizations, and governments. There are certain things that only individuals or local groups can do. There are other things that may be more effective if they are initiated at the community level.

But there are many aspects of poverty that governments must take a primary role in solving. Governments have the ability to change structures and policies that greatly impact those living in poverty. Government action is also the expression of our collective will to do something about poverty. The federal government has a leadership responsibility to fulfill in taking action on poverty; other sectors of society and individuals can then do their part to fight poverty.

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