The Record: “Canada needs a strategy to end poverty”

I will conclude my Put Food in the Budget posts by drawing attention to my editorial in today’s Waterloo Region Record. In it I draw the link from the provincial to the federal, and suggest that there is much that can be done nationally to end poverty in Canada.

As a participant in last week’s Put Food in the Budget Campaign, I was challenged to live for one week on $20, the amount that many recipients of social assistance in Ontario have to pay for food. I was joined by nine other residents of Waterloo Region, and I am sure they can attest to the fact that it sounds a lot easier than it actually is.

The week left me wondering why our federal government has not taken more initiative in the creation and implementation of a strategy to end poverty in Canada. There are simply far too many Ontarians, more than 357,000, living on social assistance, well below the poverty line. I can only imagine what the numbers look like in other provinces.

As it turns out, the Senate of Canada made a call for such a strategy in December 2009. In a bi-partisan report, In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, the Senate made 74 recommendations to the federal government on ways that Canada could work toward the eradication of poverty in Canada. Chief among them are a call for a national child care program, the establishment of a national housing strategy, the creation of a national pharmacare program, and the upping of income supports to at least the poverty line.

Imagine my surprise, shock and disgust when I discovered that the federal government had rejected the call to action on poverty out-of-hand. Rather than make any commitment to poverty reduction in Canada, this Conservative government instead took 150 days to say that they will take the committee’s recommendations under advisement.

This non-answer is a stark contrast from some of the work that other MPs have been doing in the House of Commons, aimed at ending poverty in Canada.

In June of 2010, NDP MP Tony Martin (Sault St. Marie) introduced “An Act to Eliminate Poverty in Canada.” This private member’s bill, seconded by Liberal MP Michael Savage and Bloc Quebecois MP Yves Lessard, calls for the establishment of a poverty commissioner charged with bringing together the federal government, provinces, municipalities, aboriginal governments, and civil society to develop a national poverty strategy, holding each accountable for all goals and targets set.

Within the year, NDP MP Megan Leslie (Halifax) will introduce a bill calling for a National Pharmacare Strategy, knowing full well that affordable prescriptions are simply not accessible to thousands of Canadians.

Vancouver East MP Libby Davies’ bill calling for National Housing Strategy has the support of the Waterloo Regional Council, and is currently awaiting 3rd reading in the House of Commons. None of the MPs in Kitchener, Waterloo or Cambridge are expected to vote in favour.

It is possible to bring about the end of poverty in Canada. What we’re missing is the political will to put aside partisan bickering and focus on solutions that make sense for all Canadians. As I finish up my potatoes and mouldy bread, I look not only to the Dalton McGuinty’s provincial government to Put Food in the Budget, but also to Stephen Harper’s federal government to Take Poverty off the Table.

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“Ottawa Rejects Senate Plan to Fight Poverty”

Those are not my words either.

The Toronto Star carried a story yesterday that noted that our Federal government has rejected all 74 recommendations put forward by the Senate to combat poverty in Canada. As I noted in a previous post, fighting poverty isn’t only the role of the provincial government, but it is also the role of the Federal Government.

While we’re calling our MPP’s perhaps we could also take a few moments to contact our MP’s and ask them why they have refused to take any action at all on fighting poverty in Canada?

Party Leaders:

The Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper, Prime Minister, Conservative Party of Canada Email: Harper.S@parl.gc.ca

Michael Ignatieff, Leader, Liberal Party of Canada Email: Ignatieff.M@parl.gc.ca

Jack Layton, Leader, New Democratic Party of Canada, Email: laytoj@parl.gc.ca

Local MP’s:

Stephen Woodworth, MP, Kitchener Centre: Telephone 519-741-2001 Email woodworth.s@parl.gc.ca

Peter Braid, MP, Kitchener-Waterloo:Telephone 519-746-1573
E-mail braidp1@parl.gc.ca

Harold Albrecht, MP, Kitchener-Conestoga: Telephone 519-578-3777 Email Albrecht.H@parl.gc.ca

Gary Goodyear, MP, Cambridge: Telephone 519-624-7440 Email Goodyear.G@parl.gc.ca

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Whose Responsibility is it anyway?

Yesterday I decided that I would check out St. John’s Kitchen for lunch. Many of my friends from Out of the Cold have mentioned that the lunches there are good and the volunteers are generous, so I figured that it would be a good place to find a meal.

I was surprised at how busy it was. I think I expected to see a lot of the people who use the Out of the Cold program in the winter; most people who use that program are genuinely homeless, people who live on the street. I was surprised to find that of the 100 people in the dining room when I showed up for lunch at noon, I only recognized one of the men from OOTC.

(I did run into Greg deGroot-Magetti, another participant in this week’s challenge)

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. At the Wednesday night Out of the Cold, which is held at St. Matthew’s Church in downtown Kitchener (want to volunteer? Ask me!), about 50 people spend the night, but we normally feed between 150 and 200 people for supper.

This could mean a number of things, but the most plausible explanation is that there are a lot of people who have homes, but who can’t afford to feed themselves. Maybe they live in social housing projects, or maybe they pay market prices for rent, but when all the bills are paid, there just isn’t enough left over for food.

I’m not in any place to say how people spend their money. A common objection I hear to the call to increase social assistance rates is that people spend money foolishly – perhaps they prioritize cable TV over food, or they insist on having a mobile phone, or some other item that is normally deemed a luxury item. Why would we increase social assistance rates if people are not willing to spend the money wisely? It’s just wasted money anyway.

Imagine you have $572 dollars to spend every month.

$356 per month is your rent allotment, and $216 is your personal needs allotment.

Can you find a place to live at market prices for $356/mth?

Can you find all your food, your toiletries, your transportation, some form of communication, laundry, and any recreation for $216/mth?

Probably not, eh?

Why would we even think of throwing the responsibility of money management upon the recipients of Ontario Works if we can’t even provide them the minimum amount necessary to balance a basic budget?

No has one ever said that responsibility doesn’t go hand-in-hand with social assistance. Perhaps those of us who can afford to spend a little bit more on our poor neighbours should live out our responsibility to them before we expect our poor friends to balance an impossible budget?

How can you ask that our provincial government does its part?

Call your MPP and request that he/she Put Food in the Budget.

The Party Leaders:
Dalton McGuinty, Liberal Leader and Premier: dmcguinty.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org
Tim Hudak, Conservative Leader: timhudakco@pc.ola.org
Andrea Horwath, New Democratic Leader: ahorwath-co@ndp.on.ca

The local MPPs:
John Milloy, Kitchener Centre and Minister of Colleges and Training: jmilloy.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org or call 519-579-5460
Leeanna Pendergast, Kitchener-Conestoga: lpendergast.mpp.co@liberal.ola.org or 519-571-3276
Elizabeth Witmer, Waterloo North: elizabeth.witmer@pc.ola.org or call 519-725-3477
Gerry Martiniuk, Cambridge: gerry.martiniukco@pc.ola.org or call 519-623-5852

(Thanks to challenge participant Bill Bean for the contact list)

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“You’re Not You When You’re Hungry”

This Snickers advert, featuring Betty White, claims “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Sadly, that’s true for thousands of Ontarians who go without because our government views social assistance as a burden, rather than a tool to help people move up and out of poverty. Let’s Put Food In The Budget, shall we?

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Day Three: Crying over Broken Eggs

My morning started off a little rough; I’ll share the ‘egg drop’ story first and then I’ll move into some specific points that I wanted to mention about my experience today.

I woke up for a store managers meeting at 7am. I knew that I would have to be at the store from the time the meeting started at 8am until 6pm on my own, and I wasn’t sure what kind of day it would be – busy, slow, lots of customer service, or lots of sales.  I decided I would splurge and cook three eggs – one for breakfast and two for some lunch sandwiches.

As I took the three eggs from the fridge and moved them over to the stove, I dropped one.

I have never been so upset about the loss of an egg in my life. In that moment, that $0.18 was a real big deal.

After some complaining, I cooked up the two eggs, and made an peanut butter and jam sandwich to replace the broken egg.

It is amazing how one broken egg really matters when you’re on a tight budget.

My observations:

1. I didn’t realize, until today, just how much money I spend eating out. From a lunch stop at the food court at the mall on my way to work, to the dinner “Whopper Wednesdays” at Burger King across the street, to the Timmy’s coffee, bagel and donut in the morning, I spend a lot of unnecessary money eating elsewhere. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if my portion of the meals at home was $20/week, it’s the supplemental meals, the $7 here, the $9 there that keep me going. What if, instead of eating out, I took the time to make my meals and take a lunch to work?

My parents and my inlaws will no doubt say “I told you so”, and, well, they’re right.

2. Have you ever tried hosting friends on such a small budget?

Tonight I had my campaign team over for a meeting. Normally I’ll buy some pie, or make a cake to serve, complete with coffee or tea. I had nothing to offer. My wife surprised me by buying a tin of Tim Horton’s coffee. It was a gift, partly because she knew how much I love my coffee, and partly because she knew I would be hosting guests tonight.

The disclaimer before the meeting started was this: This coffee is Shandi’s and she has given me permission to share it with you. I cannot offer you cake, cookies or pie, because I do not have the money to do so.

We take the simple offer of a slice of pie and a coffee to a visiting friend for granted, don’t we?

It’s my third day into the challenge and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, for many Ontarians, there is no light at the end of the tunnel – Ontario’s social assistance programs trap people into their lifestyle of poverty and do nothing to help lift them up and out. What would happen if we focused on poverty reduction rather than merely managing the poor?

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What Could our Federal Government do about Poverty?

Two Senators, one Liberal (Art Eggleton) and one Conservative (Hugh Segal), tabled a report to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology in December of 2009. The report, titled “In from the Margins” (pdf) looks at how health care, child poverty, homelessness, education, employment insurance and taxation all affect poverty in Canada, and discusses groups of people that are especially prone to poverty including Aboriginals and newcomers to Canada.

The language in the report is quite strong. The executive summary is quite readable, and is recommended to anyone interested in poverty issues. There are several quotes that I wish to highlight this afternoon, as they speak some significant truths about the way we treat our poor here in Canada:

“First, when all the programs are working, when the individual gets all possible income and social supports, the resulting income too often still maintains people in poverty, rather than lifting them into a life of full participation in the economic and social life of their communities.” (p5)

This is a truth that is highlighted by the ‘Put Food in the Budget’ campaign. The Basic Needs Allotment of Ontario Works doesn’t work – it only serves to maintain poverty. As I discovered yesterday, without food, one doesn’t have energy. And without energy, finding work is impossible, let alone maintaining employment. Not to mention the need for communication (what employer will look at a resume without a phone number?) or clothes (try going into a job interview without looking your best).

“Second, at their worst, the existing policies and programs entrap people in poverty, creating unintended perverse effects which make it virtually impossible for too many people to escape reliance on income security programs and even homeless shelters.” (p5)

The report goes on to say that it doesn’t have to be this way. It cites several federal programs that have worked to lift people out of poverty in the past, including National Child Benefit for children, the Old Age Security/Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, and the Working Income Tax Benefit.

After analyzing some significant data, and conducting research in every major Canadian city, the report was tabled in the Senate, containing a number of recommendations, 74 in total.

Some of these include:

[1] The Committee recommends that the federal government adopt as a core social policy poverty eradication goal that all programmes dealing with poverty and homelessness are to lift Canadians out of poverty rather than make living within poverty more manageable and that the federal government work with the provinces and territories to adopt a similar goal.

[4] The Committee recommends that the federal government establish with the provinces a goal that individuals and families, regardless of the reasons for their need, receive incomes totaling at least after-tax LICOs.

(The LICO is the ‘Low-Income Cut Off’ line, which is Canada’s unofficial poverty line. More information can be found at http://bit.ly/dg2nw6)

[6] To demonstrate a federal commitment to adequate minimum wages, the Committee recommends that the federal government reinstate a federal minimum wage at $10/hour, indexed to the Consumer Price Index, and that suppliers of goods and services to the federal government be required to pay its employees at least that amount.

[27] The Committee recommends that the federal government work with provincial and territorial governments and appropriate other stakeholders to develop a national pharmacare program, building on progress underway in some provinces.

[44] The Committee recommends that the federal government, in collaboration with provincial governments, representatives of municipal governments, First Nation organizations, and other housing providers, develop a national housing and homelessness strategy

Poverty reduction isn’t just a local problem – it’s not just something we’re concerned about in the Waterloo Region. Nor is it just a provincial problem – yes, the Government of Ontario needs to put its money where its mouth is and Put Food in the Budget, but it is also a national problem that requires a national strategy.

We don’t have a national housing strategy. We don’t have a federal minimum wage. We don’t have a national pharmacare program. We don’t have a way to bring municipalities and provinces around the table to talk about these issues.

This is about more than just Kitchener. It’s about Canada.

 According to parliamentary rules, any report that has been tabled by the Senate with recommendations for the House of Commons must be addressed by the House within 150 days. 

Today is the 150th day since the report was tabled.

Given that there is currently a bill before the House of Commons calling for a National Housing Strategy that does not have the support of the Conservative government, I hope you’ll forgive me if my expectations of the response are low.

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Sunday’s Lessons: Inequality sucks; Food = Energy

Sunday was challenging in its own way. After church, my wife and I came home and I began to get ready for work. One of her friends had joined us for church, and Shandi had invited her over for lunch. Shandi decided she was going to make pierogies in a cheese sauce with sauteed sausages and veggies. Now this is important, because it’s my recipe, and one of my favourite meals. I wasn’t pleased that she was teasing me like that, but by the same token, I knew that it would offer me a chance to understand what inequality feels like. When your neighbour has, and you don’t and your neighbour flaunts it, refusing to share, that is inequality of the highest sort and, quite frankly, it sucks.

I opted to make one of my boxes of Kraft dinner and to cook one sausage for myself, mostly because I was being teased by the cooking that Shandi was doing.

I cut the KD box in half. Normally I can eat a full box on my own, but chose not to. I needed to save some for another meal. I suppose eating a whole box of Kraft Dinner probably isn’t all that healthy anyway, so I didn’t mind it so much.

The rough part came while at work. I am a store manager for AML Communications, an authorized Rogers dealer. I deal mostly with wireless products, but I can also activate cable, internet and home phone products. As we all know, Rogers isn’t the most loved company in the country. Thus a large part of my job is dealing with customer service issues, technical problems, and billing related queries. I pride myself in taking an unhappy customer and having them walk out of my store with a smile.

Let me tell you this – trying to provide excellent customer service on an empty stomach is hard.

Now I’d had by small bowl of KD, and I thought I would be good to go for the day. I wasn’t. I was on my own and it was a full store from the time we opened at noon until the time we closed at 5. By 3 my energy was fading – because my lunch meal was largely carbohydrates, I didn’t have the kind of nutrition necessary to sustain me for the entire day. I was cranky and I’m pretty sure my customers noticed.

I made it through to the end of the shift and my friend Ryan came to meet me at the store. We had planned to go out canvassing for my political campaign  (I’m the federal NDP candidate in Kitchener Centre). I was within inches of calling off the canvass, because I was hungry, tired and irritable. I just wanted to go home, have the rest of the KD and go to sleep.

I feel guilty.

Ryan took me out for dinner. I told him I couldn’t buy anything, and I was on a budget for the week. He understood and offered to pay for dinner. Now I had decided that, if offered, I would accept ONE offer of dinner/meal from a friend or family member over the course of the seven days, and no more. It was a good meal – it gave me the energy I needed to be able to go out and knock on a few doors in my neighbourhood and introduce myself.

I used up my one charity ‘token’ on my second day. While I am grateful and thankful for it, because it provided me with the energy I needed to get through the evening, but I still feel a little guilty.

Today is a new day. I think I’m going to have a peanut butter and jam sandwich for lunch, and I’ll take the remaining KD with me to work to eat for dinner.  I work until 9pm tonight, and then I’m back at the store for 8am tomorrow morning, where I work on my own until 5pm. It’s going to be an interesting few days…

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