Despite our best efforts towards eliminating poverty and inequality, large segments of society remain left behind. Problems seem to outpace rhetoric.
Worse, governments face huge challenges in meeting their obligations and commitments.
We face two tragedies: our domestic challenge with poverty and inequality, and the estimated 828 million people globally living in slums (expected to reach three billion in the next 30 years).
In September 2000, 191 member states agreed to United Nations Millennium Development Goals to:
- eradicate extreme poverty and hunger;
- achieve universal primary education;
- promote gender equality and empower women;
- reduce child mortality;
- improve maternal health;
- combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases;
- ensure environmental sustainability;
- develop a global partnership for development.
These goals were to have been achieved by 2015.
In 2015, the United Nations passed a new resolution – Transforming Our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ASD) – with a new set of goals to be achieved by 2030:
“The resolution resolved to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. To create conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.”
Canada’s response included an undertaking of the Opportunity for All – Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy towards the eradication of poverty: a vision for a Canada without poverty; and an interim goal of reducing poverty in Canada by 50 per cent by 2030.
Canada has also contributed to the governance of the Bretton Woods institutions – the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group, founded in 1944 in Bretton Woods, N.H., to regulate the international monetary and financial order after Second World War. The IMF and World Bank are primary institutions for the achievement of sustainable development, and Canada is one of the largest members.
Canada’s presidency at the G7 in 2017-18 amplified our obligation to the ASD goals and focus on our commitment and values for human rights. One example is Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy for improved access to education for women and girls, advancing good governance, and tackling corruption.
Canada has also advocated for better working conditions and pay for foreign workers through international agreements such as the United States, Mexico and Canada Trade Agreement (USMC).
Further, Canada has led the G7 in promoting anti-corruption, anti-bribery and anti-money laundering programs for combating the financing of terrorism; promoting policies that foster trust and influence among recipient economies for ethical, sustainable and transparent exchange of foreign aid and development.
Despite Canada’s domestic and international efforts to prevent bribery of public officials and concealment of proceeds of corrupt acts, the antecedents to poverty, inequality, corruption and economic instability remain colossal.
Domestically, Canada defines poverty as “The condition of a person who is deprived of the resources, means, choices and power necessary to acquire and maintain a basic level of living standards and to facilitate integration and participation in society.”
Canada’s official poverty line is calculated using the Market Basket Measure (MBM), which is based on the cost of a basket of food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other items for individuals and families. It represents a modest, basic standard of living, based on the unique economic and social characteristics of 50 regions and 19 specific communities across Canada.
According to the 2017 Canadian Income Survey (CIS), the Poverty Reduction Strategy’s interim target of reducing poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 was reached a full three years ahead of schedule. According to the report, poverty reduction to 9.5 per cent was the lowest rate in Canadian history.
In many instances, aggregate data misses the misfortune felt by significant segments of society. Too much is celebrated based on arbitrary and subjective ‘basic needs.’
For instance, 93 per cent of respondents to a survey by Statistics Canada asking about the “market basket measure” for poverty said that measures for housing costs were too low.
According to Toronto social service organization Fred Victor, 9,200 homeless people on average sleep outdoors in Toronto and the nightly occupancy rate of the city’s shelters is 98 per cent. Vancouver recorded 2,223 residents identified as homeless, 614 living on the street and 1,609 in shelters, including emergency shelters, detox centres, safe houses and hospitals, with no fixed address.
While poverty rates have decreased according to the CIS, there have been increases in income disparity. Between 2000 and 2016, the proportion of Ontarians under the Low Income Measure decreased by 11 per cent, but the income gap between the poorest and richest Ontarians grew by 10 per cent.
According to Toronto’s Vital Signs Report for 2019-20, a white person over the age of 35 has typically experienced huge growth in inflation-adjusted income, often 60 per cent or more over the last 30 years. Meanwhile, racialized populations, newcomers and people under the age of 35 have seen no increase in income whatsoever. The top 20 per cent have had their net worth increase by an average of more than $600,000 from 1999 to 2016, while the bottom 20 per cent have seen their net worth grow by just $2,100.
According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s 100 highest paid CEOs netted 209 times more than the average worker made in 2016. The top highest 100 paid CEOs make, on average, $10.4 million – 209 times the average income of $49,738, up from 193 times more than in 2015.
The report’s author, senior economist David Macdonald, notes: “Canada’s corporate executives were among the loudest critics of a new $15 minimum wage in provinces like Ontario and Alberta, meanwhile the highest paid among them were raking in record-breaking earnings.”
We’re winning the war on poverty by Roslyn Kunin
The proportion of single-person households accessing food banks has also increased by 45 per cent since 2007. According to some reports, the overall depth of need has increased, with visits to food banks growing three times faster than unique individuals.
Within the First Nations context, there were 4,300 Indigenous children aged zero to four reported as foster children living in private homes in 2016. Although Indigenous children accounted for 7.7 per cent of all children aged zero to four, they accounted for 51.2 per cent of all foster children in this age group.
One-quarter (26.2 per cent) of Inuit, 24.2 per cent of First Nations and 11.3 per cent of Métis lived in dwellings that require major repairs. These rates were highest for Inuit living in Inuit Nunangat (31.5 per cent) and status First Nations people living on reserve (44.2 per cent).
The proportion of First Nations people who lived in a dwelling that needed major repairs was more than three times higher on reserve than off reserve.
Suicide rates among First Nations people are three times the rate among non-Indigenous people. And the suicide rate for people living on reserve was about twice as high as that among those living off reserve.
In 2016-2017, Indigenous adults accounted for upwards of 28 per cent of admissions to provincial, territorial correctional services and federal correctional services, while representing 4.1 per cent of the Canadian adult population.
Indigenous youth accounted for 46 per cent of admissions to correctional services in 2016-2017, while representing eight per cent of the Canadian youth population.
These statistics should provide pause for those who find solace in the aggregation of human misfortune into a basket measure of success.
And if moral obligation doesn’t suffice for eradicating poverty, there are economic incentives. There are, for instance, lost tax revenues and increased costs to the health and justice system for maintaining people in poverty. It has been calculated that the cost of poverty in Ontario alone in 2019 was between $27.1 billion and $33 billion per year.
Like the arbitrary and subjective imposition of ‘basics needs’ or a ‘modest living standard’ in Canada, statements about ending poverty, combating inequalities, building peaceful just and inclusive societies, creating conditions for decent work for all on a global scale are also problematic.
These goals don’t aim to raise a slum dweller in Mexico to the same level as that of a person living at the poverty level in Portugal, Spain or Greece.
The terminology used in combating poverty and inequality already indicates a defeatist slant from elimination to sustaining. If we’re not careful, sustaining may soon evolve into managing and controlling.
Humanity is interwoven into a complex global web; what happens in one part of the world reverberates throughout the globe, affecting us all.
With an estimated three billion people expected to be living in slums within the next 30 years, it’s unlikely that current programs and trends will make sufficiently significant difference towards achieving the ASD goals.
We’re well past the point when lofty statements can be relied on to punt the proverbial can down the road. It’s time for meaningful and transformative change.
Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples shows how aggregating achievements can hide the reality of entire communities.
Frontier Centre for Public Policy contributor Anil Anand served as a police officer with a Canadian service for 29 years in a variety of roles, including being assigned to Interpol. He has a master of law degree, as well as an MBA, and has taught criminology and community policing courses. His book Mending Broken Fences Policing, looks at the role of contemporary policing in modern society.