We’ve just emerged from the season when everyone wants to help support their local food bank initiatives. But ‘sharing the season’ always poses a tough question for me: How do we help our neighbours when, according to Canada Without Poverty, there are 4.9 million neighbours to help? The number of Canadians in need only seems to get worse.
The truth is, food banks remain a symptom of bigger problems – poverty and social inequality.
According to Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ), one in seven Canadians – including one in five children and four in 10 Indigenous children – live in poverty.
Plenty of research demonstrates that poverty negatively affects health. The Canadian Institute for Health Information reports people living in poverty suffer a greater incidence of hospitalization for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and more mental health issues. One in 10 suffer from diabetes and other health-related issues.
And, according to Statistics Canada, 40,000 Canadians – 110 people each day – suffer premature death as a result of poverty.
So who’s on top and how are they faring?
According to the Broadbent Institute, the top 10 per cent of Canadians hold 47.9 per cent of this country’s wealth while the bottom 50 per cent hold less than six per cent. Since 2005, the wealthiest 10 per cent of individual Canadians have seen a doubling of their incomes by $620,600 while the lowest 10 per cent have seen a drop of $5,100. The problem is not just inequality but that inequality has grown steadily over two decades.
Charity is simply not enough.
Don’t get me wrong, donating to food banks and charities is worthwhile – I do it every year and recommend you do, too. But governments also need to step up.
So what can we do to address poverty and social inequality?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos have promised Canadians the “first-ever national poverty reduction strategy.”
Unfortunately, we’re still waiting.
The prime minister needs to hear from Canadians that addressing poverty and social inequality is a priority and we need this federal plan now.
Citizens for Public Justice proposes an impressive six-point plan. It could nudge the government in several worthwhile directions, including indexing the child benefit, providing more safe and affordable housing, establishing a national pharmacare program, providing improved access to skills training and funding for Indigenous education, and a national child-care program.
Of course, some think poor people should just get jobs. If only it were that easy.
Living Wage Canada points out that 70 per cent of Canadians living in poverty work but don’t make enough to cover living costs. In fact, there’s been a five-fold increase in minimum wage work in the past 17 years in Ontario alone.
A recent New York Times headline aptly observed, “Plenty of Work, Not Enough Pay.” At the same time, corporate Canada is sitting on an estimated $600 billion of what former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney called “dead money” that’s not benefiting the economy.
So what’s the solution?
Governments need to ensure Canadians working can earn a living. Raising the minimum wage is a good first step.
Businesses also need to pay their workers fairly. Sound idealistic? Many businesses are already paying a living wage and find they’re retaining employees, can now afford training, and have a better and more productive work environment.
We also need to make sure Canadians, including businesses, pay their fair share of taxes. Canadians for Tax Fairness reports that we’re losing $10 billion to $15 billion a year to tax havens. That alone would go a long way to addressing economic inequality across the country. A fair and just tax system enables us to do together what we can’t do alone.
We need to commit to reducing the need for food banks.
It’s not a question of whether Canadians can afford to reduce hunger, but whether we’re willing. Poverty and inequality leads to insecurity. And as former Chilean ambassador Juan Somavia said at the World Summit on Social Development in 1995, “You cannot have secure nations full of insecure people.”
David Pfrimmer is professor emeritus and a fellow at the Centre for Public Ethics at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary at Wilfrid Laurier University.