Canada is paying the cost of inaction on poverty

By  Joe Gunn, Catholic Register Special
  • March 23, 2011
Faith communities are on the front lines of service to the poor, right across Canada. Most of the volunteers at soup kitchens, drop-ins and other street-level programs are members of communities of various faiths. And these services are (unfortunately) needed more and more.

As only one example, in Ottawa’s Sandy Hill neighbourhood, the St. Joe’s Supper Table experienced an 18-per-cent increase in people needing to be fed in 2009, up to 130 guests per evening. It got worse the next year: between August 2009 and August 2010, demand grew another 26 per cent. St. Joe’s recorded its highest-ever number of guests, 191, on Sept. 14, 2010. That was an incredible load for a facility that can only seat  24 people at a time.

Estimates of Canadians living in poverty ranged up to 4.3 million during the height of the recent recession. Almost one in 10 Canadian children live below the poverty line. People of faith are becoming increasingly aware that such high levels of poverty are far beyond piecemeal or charitable solutions. So they are starting to speak out, demanding change. The most senior leaders from Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and other faiths gathered in Ottawa in early March to urge federal politicians to respond to this growing crisis by taking concrete action. Bishop François Lapierre of St. Hyacinthe represented the Catholic bishops.

These faith leaders recognize that a majority of Canadians live in provinces that have already initiated poverty reduction plans, and they wonder why the federal government has not done the same. It’s not for lack of information or direction.

The December 2009 Senate report, In From the Margins, made 78 concrete recommendations that could have provided an impressive foundation for action. The Senators agreed that Canada needs social policies designed to lift people out of poverty that would replace existing policies that simply keep them there. A 2008 study from Ontario’s Association of Food Banks Canada suggested that the cost of poverty in Canada ranges from $72.5 billion to $86.1 billion each year.

No wonder the Senators concluded that Canada can’t afford to refuse to eliminate poverty — the cost of inaction is simply too high.

More recently, a November 2010 report of a Parliamentary Committee, three years in the making, provided 58 similar recommendations for poverty reduction. The federal government responded to this report, Federal Poverty Reduction Plan: Working in Partnership Towards Reducing Poverty in Canada, earlier this month by flatly refusing to use the recommendations to develop a poverty reduction plan. With a federal budget scheduled for March 22, and possibly an election to follow soon thereafter, the time couldn’t be better for politicians to show leadership on this crucial issue.

Dignity for All is a non-partisan national campaign to make Canada poverty free and more socially secure by 2020. Many communities of faith have supported the campaign’s three primary objectives: implementation of a federal poverty reduction plan, passage of legislation to ensure federal commitment and accountability to poverty elimination goals, and sufficient government investment in social security. Faith leaders have been joined by a wide range of organizations, over 500 in number, including many religious congregations, the Catholic Women’s League, St. Vincent de Paul Society and the Canadian bishops. As well, 113 Members of Parliament and Senators, from all parties, have supported these goals.

While the best time for action to address poverty may have been yesterday, communities of faith see momentum building in Canadian society to demand better results today.

We should all pray — and act — for their success.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, a faith-based research and education organization, and co-chair of Dignity for All

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