From Charity to Entitlement

Look to history for best way to end persistent poverty
April 1, 2011

I recently heard a caller to a radio talk-show complain about poor people turning to government for assistance to survive. He suggested that community efforts, such as food banks and charity, should suffice.

And from his grave, Dickens groaned.

One measure of a civilization is how it treats its disadvantaged. Nordic countries excel here. With generally successful economies and the highest taxes, they enjoy commensurate standards of living. 

Another indicator of a civilized state is a shrinking gap between the incomes of its rich and poor. Canada, apparently, is slipping from civilized heights, through the middle tier of Western countries towards the bottom – thanks to our governments’ actions and inactions.

So whose responsibility is it to care for the disadvantaged, to raise the bottom income tier as well as to reduce the upper one, particularly in a recession?

The government of Canada is bound by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees the right to life, liberty, and security of the person; and by the Canadian Constitution, ensuring equal opportunities for our well-being and the provision to all Canadians of essential public services.

What public services are essential to our well-being? In a rich country like Canada, one can reasonably expect them to include food, clothing, shelter, health services, education, and services that promote social inclusion. This last arises from the currently accepted definition of poverty: the condition of being without the means sufficient to meet basic needs and to be thereby excluded from taking part in activities that are an accepted and respected part of daily living within a society.

But our courts have left open whether these instruments impose positive obligations on governments to implement them. Judicial wisdom evolves, and we look to the higher courts for trends, even to their dissident opinions. One such opinion was delivered in 2002 by then Supreme Court of Canada Justice Louise Arbour, sitting after her service as chief prosecutor for the International Court of Justice and before that as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The case involved Louise Gosselin, 29, a single person who challenged a regulation of Quebec’s Social Aid Act, which then (in 1986) distinguished between allowances for young adults – those under 30 – and others. The former received about one-third of the regular single adult allowance, although the difference could be minimized if they enrolled in one of three job readiness programs. A majority of the Supreme Court justices found that the differentiation did not infringe upon the equality provision of the Charter, nor the provision guaranteeing the right to security of the person.

In her dissent, Justice Arbour concluded not only that the regulation violates the “life, liberty and security of the person” provision of the Charter, but that its language and structure actually compel the finding of certain positive rights to the basic means of subsistence, within that provision. These rights, she argued, are rights of “performance”; they may be invoked by mere inaction or failure by the state to actively provide the conditions necessary for their fulfillment. Furthermore, the right to life is the progenitor of all other Charter rights and it can be infringed by state inaction.

Must the state then provide the means of subsistence to those who cannot provide for themselves? Justice Arbour answers, “yes, it must.” How much? That is not for courts to decide: it is a matter of (provincial) public policy. But once it has been established, as it was for singles 30 and older, then it applies to all single adults. [Note: the offending regulation was repealed in 1989.]

There was a time when our collective conscious revelled in our expanding and evolving social programs. That was before the Chicago School of Economics ruled and we were dumbed down into compliance. Well under way during the Mulroney years, the fundamental shift in our values took a quantum leap with Paul Martin’s 1995 budget and its PR version, the Purple Book of the Chrétien government. Deficit slaying was Martin’s obsession: he did it in spades. The country changed, along with its social support systems.

Following orders from the now discredited Washington Consensus groups, Martin imposed structural adjustment measures on government departments across the board. He slashed budgets by up to 65%, cancelled programs, privatized, deregulated, cut taxes (particularly for the rich), imposed labour flexibility, and claimed that “there is no alternative.” Some of us howled; most succumbed; our social democracy never recovered.

Most offensive of these measures were the replacement of the Canada Assistance Plan (CAP) and Established Program Funding (EPF) with the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST) and the gutting of Unemployment Insurance (UI). The CAP covered welfare, special needs, and an array of social programs on a 50-50 cost-sharing basis with the provinces and territories, the latter providing the assistance to all people in need, with no residency requirements and with a right of appeal.

Under the new deal, cash transfers were severely reduced – by 40% in two years – and could be funnelled into the provincial/territorial general revenue funds, with no strings attached other than the “no residency” requirement. Thereafter, amounts transferred would be determined by economic growth (GDP), not by need.

“It is difficult to imagine a worse mismatch than using economic growth to determine how much money should be spent on welfare and social services,” warned the National Council of Welfare at the time. We have since seen why. These amounts dwindled, forcing provinces and territories to pick up the social assistance slack with significantly fewer dollars.

Too many Canadians experience the failings of the renamed UI scheme: reduced payments; increased barriers to access; and shorter payout periods. Martin therewith achieved two goals: creating “labour market disincentive” and taking for his general revenue fund the difference between contributions from workers and employers and the actual UI payments. In 1998, when 925,000 laid-off workers received nothing, this difference amounted to $7.8 billion. This fund ought to be used for its intended purpose under a redesigned UI system.

Affordable housing suffered, too, as the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation saw half its housing stock transferred to the provinces, not to be replaced. Yet, by this year, its reserve fund will hold a projected $9 billion in profits from its conduct of mortgage-related business in the private sector. These funds ought to be used to build housing for those who need it most, and in the context of a national housing strategy.

When the provision of subsistence allowances was abruptly shifted to the provinces, at a time when the dominant economic theory demanded lower taxes, these provisions were defined as a measure of last resort and came attached with a stigma. One method of reducing poverty and the associated stigma is the peoposed Guaranteed Income. Operating similarly to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, it could provide those with little or no income with the minimum means to survive. Senator High Segal argues that the GI could be implemented for less than the cost of current assistance programs. 

At the time of Confederation, our common civic goals were “peace, welfare, and good government.” That morphed into “peace, order, and good government” in our Constitution. “This, too, changed the nature of Canada,” stated John Ralston Saul in A Fair Country: Telling the Truth about Canada. “Gone was the sense of societal welfare, of the ‘public good, the public weal, and the welfare of the people’.”

Were the postwar Tommy Douglas years an aberration, then? On the contrary, UI, CAP, and the EPF reflected the priority Canadians placed on meeting social needs – collectively!

Poverty is a failure of democracy. Canadians have never been obsessed with order, but we are eminently fair. Saul defines “welfare” as well-being, bienêtre, and fairness, and credits our Aboriginal tradition, our métissage (the mixing of races or interracial marriage) for it.

We must honour these roots and ever expand the circle to include those in need.


(Judy Kennedy, of Granville Ferry, N.S., is a retired lawyer and current member of the steering committee of the CCPA’s Nova Scotia office.)