We all pay for poverty

BC needs a plan
December 11, 2008

British Columbians are distressed by poverty and growing homelessness in our midst, but too often we feel resigned — that nothing can be done, that seeing poor people sleeping in the streets is the new normal.

Not so. There is nothing inevitable about poverty and homelessness in a society as wealthy as ours. But changing this reality requires focused government action. Other jurisdictions have set clear targets and timelines –– and they’re getting results.

The BC government should also adopt a poverty reduction plan. This strategy needs to include concrete and legislated targets and timelines to dramatically reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty in the province. Five Canadian provinces either have such plans or are in the process of developing them, but so far, not BC. With our provincial election scheduled for May, we call on all political parties to commit to such a plan.

As BC heads into a global economic downturn, poverty risks getting worse unless government action is taken. And this is precisely the time to do it, because action to reduce poverty will contribute to the economic health of the province.

The need is clear: By any measure, BC has the highest rate of poverty in Canada. Despite years of strong economic growth and record low unemployment over half a million British Columbians — 13 per cent of the population — live in poverty. Homelessness continues to rise. For five years running, BC has recorded the highest child poverty rate in the country.

Most poor people in BC are working in the paid labour force, yet their earnings (even working full time) are not enough to lift them and their children out of poverty. Those in desperate need of welfare, due to the loss of a job, the loss of good health, or any number of other life circumstances, find that the social safety net meant to catch them is not there.

We all pay for poverty and homelessness: Poverty is consistently linked to poorer health, higher justice system costs, more demands on social and community services, more stress on family members, and diminished school success.

A recent study calculated the cost of poverty in Ontario to the public treasury to be between $10.4 and $13.1 billion, and between $32.2 and $38.3 billion for society at large (about 6 per cent of Ontario’s GDP).

As governments prepare stimulus measures for the economy, actions directed at poverty will be among the most effective. This is because all of the remedies will be based on local initiatives, whether it is housing, increased wages, or improved welfare benefits. The poor spend their incomes and that, in turn, will stimulate local businesses.

A comprehensive plan: In a report released today, we outline the essential elements of meaningful poverty reduction plan. We propose a comprehensive package of policies, drawing on the findings of five years of research by the Economic Security Project. This project, under the leadership of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Simon Fraser University, brought together 44 university researchers and community partners.

Poverty reduction cannot consist of one type of action because poverty has many different causes, and different groups of people experience poverty differently.

Any comprehensive plan will need to boost the minimum wage, and support the expansion of a living family wage to those in the low-wage workforce. It will also need to enhance access to social assistance and substantially boost benefit rates.

Eliminating homelessness requires dramatically ramping up the construction of new social housing units. Equally important will be the need to strengthen the social infrastructure that provides a path out of poverty and prevent the near-poor from falling into poverty. This means enhancing access to child care, post-secondary education and training, and community health care services

A credible plan must have clear targets and timelines. The benchmarks must be frequent enough that a government can be held accountable for progress within its mandate. Among our proposed targets: reduce poverty by one third in four years (and by 75 per cent in ten years); within two years, ensure no British Columbians are living 50 per cent or more below the poverty line; and eliminate street homelessness in five years.

These targets are ambitious, but realistic, and something that people in BC support. According to a recent Environics poll (commissioned by the CCPA), 87 per cent of British Columbians believe the Premier should set concrete targets to reduce poverty. 77 per cent said that in the face of a recession, governments should focus even more effort on supporting the poor. And 74 percent say they would be more likely to support a provincial political party that had a poverty reduction plan.

A dramatic reduction in poverty and homelessness within a few short years is an perfectly achievable goal. All that is needed now is the political will to act.

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Seth Klein is the BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Marjorie Griffin Cohen is a professor of women’s studies and political science at Simon Fraser University. They are co-directors of the Economic Security Project, and co-authors of A Poverty Reduction Plan for BC.