Archive for March 18th, 2014

Senator Hugh Segal on fighting poverty in Canada, a TVOBigIdeas video:

In a lecture entitled “Fighting Poverty”, Senator Hugh Segal explains why we need a new national approach to tackling poverty arguing that the costs and consequences of poverty are much larger than direct spending on social programs. Segal has been a long-time proponent of establishing a Guaranteed Annual Income. This lecture was produced in collaboration with the Literary Review of Canada.

A short answer to hunger and the need for food banks is to increase government support payments for food. In The Stop, author Nick Saul suggests providing social assistance recipients with a food allowance of several hundred dollars a month. But a food supplement doesn’t get at the root cause of hunger. Although poverty may have many faces, the basic cause is not hard to understand: too little money.

The simplest solution to poverty is to give the poorest members of society more money, top up their incomes to a minimum living standard. In short, institute a Guaranteed Annual Income.

Suggesting such a plan in polite company generally provokes a few predictable reactions:

But that’s a communist/socialist/fascist/bleedingheartliberal/etc idea! We can’t do that!

Actually, it is not. The idea of a Guaranteed Annual Income has been around since the 1970s. It has proponents across the political spectrum. These have included economist Milton Friedman, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon. In a 1968 speech, Progressive Conservative Party Leader Robert Stanfield stated that he would consider a Guaranteed Annual Income.

A Guaranteed Annual Income is a good fit with avowed Conservative goals. A GAI reduces government bureaucracy. A GAI is tough on crime, as the poor are disproportionately represented in prisons. And a GAI reduces strain on the health care system. And raising the income of our poorest citizens allows them to participate as consumers in the market economy beloved by Conservatives.

But why should hard-working tax-payers look after people who don’t work?

We’re already paying a heavy price for poverty. In fact, poverty is hugely expensive. There is a major network of programs designed to address poverty and its implications, from welfare programs to those designed to reduce school dropout rates, curb substance abuse, provide safe houses for victims of family violence, divert young people who have run-ins with the law, subsidise housing, and more. Poverty is closely linked to poor health and an increased incidence of chronic disease, which in turn strains health care resources. And none of these programs end poverty. When you get right down to it, we really can’t afford poverty.

But people would just sit around drinking beer and watching TV all day!

This speaks to the stereotype of poor people as lazy and undeserving and child-like, with no facility for handling their own money or making life decisions. In fact, evidence suggests that the working poor continue to work and improve their lives when their income is supplemented.

From 1974 to 1978, the town of Dauphin, Manitoba was the site of an experiment called Mincome. Over those years, every family in the rural town was eligible to participate. After this period, the program was discontinued and the data that had been collected was filed away as new governments with new priorities let the experiment lapse. The data languished until a University of Winnipeg professor in the department of Community Health Sciences, Evelyn Forget, set about examining the results of the study. Forget concludes in a paper linked here:

We see a larger impact of a GAI on Dauphin than expected, because even though not all families qualified for a supplement, the impacts of the GAI extended beyond qualifying families. This is due to social interaction: changes in behaviour of those who receive the supplement influence those who do not, reinforcing the direct effects of the GAI. A good example of this effect is the influence of grade 11 students on their peers to continue education.

The most suggestive result of this study is the fall of hospitalization rates by 8.5 percent in Dauphin relative to the comparison group, specifically, a reduction in hospitalization rates for accidents, injuries, and mental health problems. Considering that in 2010, Canada spent $55 billion on hospital costs–8.5 percent of which is about $4.6 billion– these potentially immense savings make a GAI worthy of policy consideration.

Below is a youtube link to a CBC interview with Evelyn Forget. A transcript of the interview is available here.

A Guaranteed Annual Income offers the potential to allow a diverse range of human endeavours to bloom and enrich society, from starving artists and struggling writers to creative entrepreneurs. These days, not only artists are at risk. As Harper Conservatives close down environmental protection and scientific research, intrepid scientists and naturalists are cast adrift to fill the void just when the need to study the effects of climate change and biodiversity loss is escalating.

There is no more eloquent speaker on behalf of a Guaranteed Annual Income than Senator Hugh Segal. This hour long presentation is well worth listening to in full. Segal addresses the Mincome experiment at the 14 minute mark.

For decades, neoliberal policies have promoted a ‘trickle down’ approach to government budgeting. It’s time to turn neoliberal politics on its head and employ a ‘bottom up’ strategy to end poverty in Canada.

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These days, there’s scarcely a retail store you can enter without being confronted with a collection bin for a local food bank. Even the LCBO has one! (The liquor store. Are they hoping for donations of beer? The poor could probably use one.) And every time I see a collection bin, I wince. It’s embarrassing. I feel so ashamed of us Canadians. Here we are, one of the most fortunate of nations, and yet we expect our poorest citizens to beg for food from strangers.

The biggest problem with food banks is that they simply can’t meet the needs of the hungry. Many food banks are so overwhelmed that they must limit households to one hamper per month. The supplies they are able to provide do not insure users will have nutritious diets. Food banks can only supply what is donated, often canned and boxed goods, with few fresh items.

Further, food banks only reach a minority of those in need. A survey by Human Resources Development Canada showed that only one in four “hungry” Canadians used food banks. Others would rather go hungry than accept charity, or they choose to leave what is available for those who they believe ‘really’ need it. See It’s Time to Close Canada’s Foodbanks by Elaine Power)

Beyond feeding the hungry, food banks serve less conspicuous functions. Food banks unintentionally divide citizens into ‘Haves’, those who make donations, volunteer or participate in food drives, who can feel good about helping out, and the ‘Have Nots’, who may be demoralized at having to accept handouts. This reinforces an old charitable model, where one group of privileged people helps the underprivileged, perpetuating an us-and-them atmosphere.

Food banks are good for corporations, especially food corporations, who may use food banks to offload edible food they can’t sell while advertising themselves as caring businesses. Grocery stores invite shoppers to buy extra supplies to donate in their collection bins. Some even offer pre-packaged bundles you can purchase for donation. Corporations may thus be content with the status quo.

In providing a band-aid solution, food banks allow governments to sidestep their obligation to look after the well-being and security of all citizens. The failure of governments to deal with poverty has been a growing problem in Canada, with income inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor, increasing every year.

In Ontario, 375,814 people were assisted by a food bank in March of 2013. Of those 35% were children. That compares to 314,258 in March of 2008, an increase of 19.6%. This is not a problem that is going away. (Numbers from Food Banks Canada’s report Hunger Count 2013, linked here.

No one wants people to go hungry. That’s what prompted the establishment of food banks in the first place. But they were only ever intended as a strategy to hold things together until better solutions were found. Now here we are, decades later, and things haven’t improved. Food banks represent our failure as a just society. It’s time for governments to start tackling the real issue behind food banks: poverty.

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