There has been little discussion in this election about one of the most vulnerable groups of people in our society – people living in financial poverty. It is essential that political leaders have a plan to address poverty, because for all of us to thrive, we must attend to the basic needs of each Canadian. (Note the clarification that I’m writing about financial poverty, because clearly people who are economically poor, can be rich in spirit, in culture or in other ways.)
It is important to highlight that poverty does not occur in isolation: most individuals or families living in poverty also belong to another socially vulnerable group. For instance, 21 percent of single mothers, 15 percent of people with disabilities and 15 percent of elderly single individuals live in poverty. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in the population living with financial poverty, just as they are overrepresented among the homeless in nearly every urban centre in Canada.
It should also be noted that the correlation between mental wellness and poverty is well documented. People living with mental health issues are more likely to live below the poverty line, and those living in poverty are more likely to have or develop mental health issues. As one example, 35% of Ontarians who are beneficiaries of the Ontario Disability Support Program have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
Some would paint an optimistic picture of progress on poverty. In 2017, Canada announced that it reached its lowest poverty rate in history (9.5 percent of the Canadian population). In August 2018, the Canadian government released its first poverty reduction strategy, “Opportunity for All”, with the goal of halving the number of Canadians living in poverty by 2030. This is a worthy aspiration of society – to care for the most vulnerable in our community. But developing and documenting a strategy to address people living in poverty is not enough. The strategy must be implemented. We must tackle poverty at its root causes and act on evidence-based policy recommendations. Here are some well-studied proposals that should be advanced in the next sitting of parliament.
The matter of seniors’ issues merits its own blogpost, but I will briefly touch on some of the needs here. I hear numerous concerns from constituents that they, their parents or grandparents feel desperate about the financial challenges associated with caring for their aging loved ones. Caregivers are overburdened and inadequately supported. They are burned out and they look to the federal government for leadership. CIHR-funded research teams and organizations like the Canadian Medical Association have been advocating for a comprehensive National Seniors’ Strategy for some time and have done excellent work on its development. The need for such a strategy to be implemented has been recently been studied by a parliamentary committee. One of the expert recommendations worthy of serious consideration by the next government is a Seniors’ Care Benefit to directly support seniors and their caregivers in the same way that we now have a simplified, universal Canada Child Benefit. I have written elsewhere about the need for affordable housing for seniors.
Universal basic income
Several provinces in Canada have run basic income pilot projects, including Manitoba and Ontario. Different models exist to guarantee a universal basic income; however, the principle is that each citizen would receive financial support to ensure they live above the official poverty line. This could take many forms; for instance, through supplementing an individual’s income such that it meets the accepted threshold, or by providing every household with a defined amount of financial support per year. Ontario’s recent Basic Income Pilot operated on a tax credit model, such that each individual or couple living below the poverty line received an income top-up, or retained enough of their income to meet household costs and average health-related spending. Early responses from participants enrolled in the program suggested that income supplementation restored a sense of dignity and hope, and also gave participants the freedom to “eat healthier, increase their social interaction and think about going back to school.” A project of this nature should be considered at the federal level.
The need for high-quality, affordable childcare is a recurring issue in Canada, one that continues to be unresolved. It is one of the most important policies associated with poverty reduction. The lack of universally available, affordable and high-quality childcare is a recognized barrier to women’s participation in the workforce. Significant unpaid care responsibilities mean that women are more often in low-paying, part-time or temporary jobs that don’t offer health benefits or long-term security. Thirty-six percent of women report difficulty finding childcare, 40 percent have changed their work schedules, 33 percent work fewer hours and 25 percent delay returning to work after having a child to accommodate the lack of available childcare.
To envision a system that can benefit Canadian families, I draw inspiration from Quebec, where a low-cost, universal system has been in place since 1997. In that province, the Educational Childcare Act began to offer childcare for five dollars per day. The plan has evolved, adopting a sliding fee structure based on family incomes, but childcare in that province is still among the most affordable programs in the world. The approach was quickly shown to benefit families, and particularly women. Quebec has seen a marked rise in women’s employment since 1997. The system has reduced families’ reliance on social assistance. Research has shown that the system pays for itself considering the long-term effects of women’s continued participation in the workforce. In fact, they found the program even makes money for the government at both the provincial and federal level. This demonstrates how a comprehensive system of affordable, universal childcare is not only possible but also beneficial for children, women, families, and by extension, all of us.
Which policies for poverty reduction do you support?