Despite the biblical injunction that the poor will always be with us, there is nothing inevitable about poverty. It is a social choice. For years the official response to poverty has been that a strong economy will cure it. But we have had years of strong economic growth and record unemployment and yet poverty is not going away. It is increasing.
British Columbia has the highest average wealth in Canada. It also has the highest rate of poverty, 13% of our population. The average poor person in BC is earning $7,700 below the minimum needed for food, clothing and shelter. Many of these poor are not on welfare; they are working full time at minimum wage jobs that cannot support them. 546,000 British Columbians live below the poverty line and a quarter of them are children. While child poverty across Canada has decreased in recent years, it has been increasing in BC and now stands at 21.9%. Gandhi called child poverty the worst form of violence and given that, we are doing an immense amount of violence to our children. British Columbia has had the highest rate of child poverty in the country for five years running and the government has no plans for reducing this number.
This is not because it can’t be done. Five other provinces either have plans in place, and are achieving some success, or are considering their own plans. We need our own plan in this province, a plan that is detailed and on which the government can be held to account. British Columbians want such a plan. Over 90% believe that we too can reduce poverty in our province and 87% would like to see both the federal and provincial government set targets and timelines to do it.
Helping the poor is not charity; it is a sound social investment, the cost of which is not outside our reach. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates the price tag of bringing all of BC’s poor up to the poverty line at $2.4 billion a year, less than our provincial government’s budget surplus in every year since 2004. But this is not necessarily a public expense. Much of it could be covered by employers paying a living wage. While we will be going into deficit for the next few years, the numbers show that a provincial poverty-reduction plan is still within the realm of affordable possibility. This is especially so because these social expenditures will reduce costs in others. We are already paying higher health costs because of poverty. Over 78,000 British Columbians used food banks on a monthly basis last year. More than a third were children. The cognitive development of children suffers when they are hungry and creates school failure and early dropout. Lack of legitimate opportunity leads to increased crime and the social costs associated with that. Through it all, the unremitting stress of poverty continues to extract the price of fractured families. We all pay those social costs.
Housing shortages add to the problem. There are over 13,000 British Columbians on the waiting list for public housing. A Simon Fraser University study revealed that 11,750 people with severe addictions and/or mental illnesses were “absolutely homeless” and that this group cost the government $644 million in health, social and correctional services each year. It would have been cheaper to house them. A study by the Ontario Association of Food Banks made a similar connection. It found that the cost of poverty to the government was between 10 and 13 billion dollars and the cost to Ontario as a whole was up to $38 billion. Poverty is too expensive to keep around. We need to get rid of it.
By supporting a comprehensive poverty reduction program we can help people get off welfare faster, earn enough to stay above the poverty line if they are working full time and not encounter all the health, social and criminal justice system costs we are paying for now because we are not paying attention to their root cause; poverty. But the plan has to be comprehensive and coordinated. Here are some of the basics:
1. Let the working poor support their families by giving them a living wage. Increase the minimum wage to $10.60 and hour, higher in the high-cost cities, and index it. Also increase the number of Employment Standards officers to make sure employees are fairly treated.
2. Ensure that the poorest British Columbians are living at the poverty line and not way below it by increasing income assistance rates by 50%.
3. Start building at least 2,000 new units of social housing.
4. Support parents’ ability to work by building a comprehensive system of quality, publicly-funded child care.
5. Increase the number of grants to allow low-income students to finish post secondary training. Let people on income assistance go to school without losing benefits.
Most of all, government should set themselves targets and a timetable to achieve them. It is estimated that we could reduce poverty by 75% over the next decade. If we gave reducing poverty the same attention we are giving to raising the Olympic banner, we could do it, and the legacy would be far more lasting. There has been much talk of working our way out of recession by rebuilding our public infrastructure. Why not start with our human infrastructure?
Robert Hart, RSW is a social worker
Chair of the Advocacy Committee
BC Association of Social Workers
Advocacy Action on Poverty -
Resources: This will link you to a containing access to research studies, policy papers, political opinion and social action.
Advocacy Tools: to some useful government email addresses and letter writing tips
"The End of Poverty" – by Robert Hart"A National Plan to End Poverty" – read about the plan, along with a model letter to government.