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Defining poverty in Canada as a social disease first step to healing it

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Derek Cook, Director, Canadian Poverty Institute. Image courtesy of Derek Cook.

"There is a tendency to think that the reason we are reluctant to talk about or address poverty is because we don't understand it," said Derek Cook, director of the Canadian Poverty Institute. Last summer he was appointed member of the new federal advisory committee on Canada's Poverty Reduction Strategy.

"I believe the opposite is true," he said. "I believe we all understand poverty perfectly well and it scares the hell out of us."

Canadians have not looked poverty in its gap-toothed mouth for many years. Through the 1980s, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau's vision of a just society included shared affluence or at least enough for all. In the 1990s, then prime minister Brian Mulroney embraced the millennial promise of abolishing child poverty by the year 2000, and managed to continue driving down the percentage. As PM, Paul Martin increased the Child Tax Benefit even as he sliced away at the national debt.

By 2010, Canada's poverty rate dived. Statistic Canada's Market Basket Measure showed that only nine per cent of Canadians struggled with very low incomes. This was the first time ever that indicator fell below 10 per cent. However, digital disruption and Stephen Harper's free market economic policies were already kicking in. The Market Basket rate rose to one in seven Canadians (14 per cent) by 2014, and 16 per cent (one in six) by 2016.

In November 2018, Justin Trudeau's government announced Canada's Poverty Reduction Strategy, aimed at lifting 2 million Canadians out of poverty. Pledging $1.25 billion over nine years, the Liberals aim to reduce poverty from 2015 levels by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030.

First, though, they have to find some national definition of poverty, because the dollar amount varies widely from region to region. As Cook points out, the same vulnerable groups named in the Bible are still at most risk today. "We find it is the same groups of people who are most likely to be poor: single people, immigrants and refugees, lone parents, Indigenous persons and persons with disabilities; all those who, in our society too, have been pushed to the margins and cut off from community." He concludes that, "Poverty, then, is deeply associated with our connection to our community."

StatsCan's strictly practical "Market Basket of Services" approach involves calculating living costs like shelter, food, utilities and transportation for a number of regions. "There are 50 poverty lines across the country [in Canada]," writes Miles Corak, a professor with the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. StatsCan measures Market Baskets in 19 cities and towns, and 31 less densely populated provincial regions. The highest poverty line is almost $41,000 in parts of Alberta, says the professor, and the lowest is just under $33,000 in parts of Quebec, averaging $37,500 for a family in Canada to meet their essentials needs.

Cook is comfortable working with this kind of statistical background in his role on the federal poverty advisory committee, partly because of his role at the Canadian Poverty Institute at Calgary's Christian Ambrose University, which provides data to other anti-poverty organizations like Citizens for Public Justice and Canada Without Poverty (CWP). Before 2009, CWP was known as the National Anti-Poverty-Organization, NAPO, founded in 1971. CWP requires that all board members have lived experience of poverty, and Cook brings that too.

CWP is urging all Canadians to respond to Statistics Canada's survey about how to define poverty. "Statistics Canada needs to hear from people across the country to build an accurate measure of what it costs to make ends meet and what goods and services, like child care, transportation, food and utilities, are critical for everyone."

CWP earned headlines in August 2018 when an Ontario Superior Court upheld its complaint that Canada Revenue Agency rules restricted CWP's freedom of speech. Charities and non-profit groups all across Canada cheered when the court struck down the CRA's regulation that a charity could spend no more than 10 per cent of its budget on "political" activities. The federal government has said that new legislation will correct errors of law but will not re-impose any set limit on charities' speaking out on public issues.

On the bureaucratic side, Cook headed up the City of Calgary's "Enough for All" poverty reduction campaign. Under his leadership, the city inaugurated the "Fair Entry" program in 2015, allowing eligible Calgarians to submit one application for all of Calgary's subsidized programs and, more recently, introduced low-income assistance for transit passes, recreation passes, the city's spay and neuter program, and property tax assistance.

The low-income passes addressed a particular sore spot, that low-income women were serving time in the city jail to work off fines (at $90 a day) for infractions such as being caught on transit without a valid ticket.

Now, working with others to create the federal "Opportunity for All" strategy, Cook plans to find other ways to build resilient communities, which he sees as the most important factor in protecting people who might fall into poverty through unlucky breaks. He cited a Calgary survey that found half of respondents had lived in poverty at some time.

When Cook asked people for one word to describe poverty, they said things like, "lonely, unjust, divided, unhealthy, unequal, blame, stress and mean." He concluded that "people are intimately familiar with poverty by the words they use to describe it." However, he said, rarely did they use the word "money." To him, this shows that community is more important.

On the other hand, let's just contemplate for a moment how polarized the economy has become, when Oxfam says that eight men own as much wealth as the poorest half of all the people in the world. Let's consider the fractured, fragmented employment market, where whole industries like taxis and travel agencies can disappear in a few years. Perhaps, in addition to resilient local communities, what we need are universal basic incomes for the majority, and significantly steeper income taxes on the wealthy minority.

Of course, the easiest way to redistribute wealth would be to win over the wealthy. Billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have decided to give away most of their money, to make a safer, cleaner, smarter, more equal world. Cook says that, if poverty represents a social wound, an injury to society, then his approach is to try to heal that wound.

Cook said he has also asked people to describe their world without poverty. "And here are some of the words that come back: hopeful, just, inclusive, vibrant, compassionate, healthy, connected and safe," he said.

"These represent our deepest hopes and dreams for ourselves and our communities. Instead of trying to fight poverty, perhaps we should dedicate ourselves to building that community instead. And if we do that well, we might just do something about poverty too. Almost by accident."

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local column in Calgary for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004-2013.

Image courtesy of Derek Cook.

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