Photo by Michael Swan

Poverty fight a long way from over, activists warn

  • March 11, 2019

Poverty activists are encouraged by the latest StatsCan numbers showing poverty is on the decline in Canada, but warn that more ambitious programs are needed to end poverty once and for all.

The numbers may be down with fewer Canadians living in poverty than ever before, as Statistics Canada noted in its Canadian Income Survey 2017 released Feb. 26, but the reality is that too many people still live below the poverty line, said Darlene O’Leary, social policy analyst with Citizens for Public Justice.

“There are still millions living in poverty,” said O’Leary, and the idea that we need to wait until 2030 to see dramatic results (a 50-per-cent reduction in poverty as per goals of the federal government’s poverty-reduction strategy released in August), “That’s a long time to wait.”

The stats, compiled from 2017 data using the Market Basket Measure (MBM), showed 3.4 million Canadians still living below the poverty line. (MBM is a low-income measure that takes into account the cost of goods and services that represent a modest, basic standard of living.) 

At 9.5 per cent of the population, that’s almost one in 10 Canadians, which is significantly below the 2015 rate that saw more than 4.2 million Canadians under the poverty line, or 12.1 per cent of the population. The median income, after taxes, is $59,800, which is a 3.3-per-cent increase from the previous two years of flat growth.

The news is most encouraging surrounding child poverty, where today nine per cent of all persons under the age 18 are considered poor, compared to 14.5 per cent in 2013. That’s a drop of almost 220,000. Much of the credit for the drop is the Canada Child Benefit, a non-taxable amount paid monthly to help eligible families in raising children. It allows a family with a child under the age of six to receive up to $6,400 per child, $5,400 per child from six to 17. The benefit replaced the Canada Child Tax Benefit and other programs that were child focused.

The stats also show seniors’ income is rising slightly and that has contributed to a decline in seniors living below the poverty line. The report said 238,000 seniors were living below the poverty line, less than the previous three years but still higher than 2013 when 219,000 seniors were considered in poverty.

O’Leary said CPJ is cautious about these latest stats because the MBM doesn’t give as comprehensive a view on poverty as the numbers it compiles for its annual poverty report released each October. Those numbers, also taken from StatsCan, include a number of other factors like housing and employment, and they are a better indicator of poverty levels across Canada, O’Leary said.

O’Leary is encouraged these numbers indicate government is serious about poverty reduction, but she would like to see a quicker path to ending poverty in Canada.

“What we see now is a slight improvement, but we’ve got a long way to go,” she said. “Ultimately our goal is poverty eradication so we’d like to see dramatic improvement take place. What we’re seeing now isn’t dramatic.”

The poverty-reduction strategy released last summer relied on programs the government had put in place in 2015 and 2016. O’Leary said the strategy could have been enhanced in August, but wasn’t. 

A number of anti-poverty groups under the Dignity for All Campaign, among them CPJ, Campaign 2000 and Canada Without Poverty, are lobbying Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, to strengthen the government’s poverty reduction bill. In an open letter signed by 90 organizations and more than 400 individuals, the group wants Bill C-87 — in second reading in the House of Commons — to be more ambitious in meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal of ending poverty. 

It seeks amendments to the bill to “affirm economic and social rights” including the right to an adequate standard of living, right to food and housing, to work and access to child care.

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