Ignoring the call for justice is simply not an option for followers of Christ. On this International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on October 17, I celebrate the release of Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy with my fellow advocates and the Chew on this! Dignity for All Campaign, which is working towards a poverty-free Canada.
Deep poverty is our country’s national shame. There are 5.8 million Canadians living in poverty. One in four people can’t keep a roof over their heads. More than one million Canadian children and youth live in poverty. Canada’s poverty is structural and it is not inevitable!
We finally have an official federal plan to reduce poverty, but it lacks the financial resources required to follow-through. As a long-time advocate for change, and as a single woman of colour who has struggled with multiple barriers in raising two children while coping with multiple hidden disabilities, I feel compelled to remind you that the all-party agreement to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000 has netted few tangible gains.
Some view poverty as a simple lack of a job. But it is much more than that! It is deprivation of choices, power and the resources or necessities to achieve the basic living standards that will facilitate participation in society. I am grateful for help, but do you know what’s like to suffer the indignity having no bread, but receiving tuna cans labeled with instructions on how to make yourself a tuna sandwich, because the giver assumes that you must be stupid if you are poor?
Certain segments of the population continue to experience disproportionate marginalization. I have personally witnessed a severe shortage of deeply affordable housing, and the growing backlog of repairs to existing social housing stock. Current distribution of “affordable housing” funding flows to developers as incentive to build few actual units for the truly marginalized. Provincial government claw backs have eroded buying power, while real costs of living continue to escalate. Living in poverty, impedes the ability of children and youth to participate in community life.
Noted as programs of “last resort” and far from living “high off the hog,” the unrealistic current maximum benefit available to a single person on the Ontario Works (welfare) program is just $733 per month. Ontario Disability Support Program recipients such as myself have seen the erosion of our benefits. The maximum benefit for a single parent with one child is $1,713 per month, and about 35 percent below poverty line, leaving me unable to afford what the government’s own statistics say is required to achieve a healthy diet. I am lucky to have subsidized housing after a 12-year wait. The claw back of child support payments was only stopped one year ago. When recipients demand more money it is not out of greed, but a plea to simply help cover the real costs of basic needs. Recipients struggle to find homes due to discrimination based on the stigma and stereotypes associated with our low income sources. There are also working people who face barriers to afford rent increases.
Church-run Out of the Cold programs and food banks won’t disappear, as they provide necessary stop-gaps for people living in poverty. However, a paradigm shift is needed in order to address the fundamental reasons that bring people to these programs in the first place.
The National Poverty Reduction Plan presents an opportunity for real impact and lasting systemic change. Building a legacy for future generations means addressing the core issues at roots of violence. Our governments must get out of their silos and take an inter-ministerial approach to collaborate and invest in rebuilding gaps in our social safety net to ensure that we can effectively address the need for adequate income and affordable rent-geared-to-income housing that is accessible to those with the lowest incomes and victims of intimate partner violence.
None of us are infallible. Many live two pay cheques away from losing everything, and sudden sicknesses and accidents can change our life trajectory. A punitive one-size-fits-all approach will not work. It hasn’t worked for 150 years!
Poverty in Canada is too expensive to maintain. Treating the symptoms of poverty is expensive to the public purse and the overall economy. What is required is a fully-funded plan that has legislative avenues to review and evaluate program effectiveness, and person-centred human rights approach to service provision and supports.
--Rene Adams is the former Community Advocate with the Fairlawn Avenue United Church Social Justice Project and a Maytree Leader for Change. She represents The United Church of Canada on the Board of Citizens for Public Justice.