Op-Ed: With A Little Help from Your Friends
September 27, 2002
by Marcel Lauzière and John Anderson
Jean Chrétien has been talking tough on poverty, at home and abroad. In the summer he told his caucus that he plans to tackle numerous social issues with a renewed “activist agenda”. But will he turn talk into action and announce a bold, new plan in the upcoming Speech from the Throne? There are compelling reasons for him to do so.
Dramatic shifts in social equality are fundamentally affecting the fabric of Canadian society, threatening our quality of life. Recent figures from Statistics Canada show that between 1984 and 1999, the wealth of the top 20% of families rose by 43% while the wealth of the bottom 20% fell by 51%. The net wealth of the “median” couple with children actually fell slightly.
The effects are most marked in big cities like Toronto. In fact, the Toronto Dominion Bank noted this trend with dismay in a report released this spring which points to falling real incomes, decreasing educational opportunities, insufficient infrastructure, “deepening pools of poverty” and an exodus of big business from the city centre.
With many voices decrying the plight of our communities, the time couldn’t be better for the Prime Minister to truly embrace an activist agenda in the Speech from the Throne.
To facilitate this process and set the stage for an exciting session of Parliament, we have drafted one part of the throne speech, which addresses the needs of children and families.
It would go something like this:
"Honourable Members and Citizens of Canada:
Over the past decade a chasm has opened up between the rich and the poor in Canada. Most disturbing is the way in which this gap is widening at an alarming rate in our large urban centers where 65% of the Canadian population live. This is a trend that we have witnessed in other parts of the world, but one we didn’t feel reflected the Canadian Way – our egalitarian approach to social supports and human rights.
We are now seeing that many vulnerable groups such as low-income citizens, women, visible minority communities, children, Aboriginal peoples and disabled people have generally not reaped the benefits of the prosperity of recent years.
To help correct this situation, the Government will greatly enhance its supports to Canadian children and families. Canada cannot afford, morally or economically, to lose the talent and resources its children represent. Families need adequate incomes and sufficient leisure time to provide children with a good start in life.
The Canada Child Tax Benefit, in combination with an improving job market, has reduced the depth of child poverty for families with children. But one in five Canadian children still lives in poverty. Therefore, the Government will consolidate tax benefits for children and raise the maximum benefit to $4,200 a year per child in low and middle income families, including families on social assistance. This expenditure will help to reduce child poverty by 50% over the next five years.
The Government has provided tax cuts to increase the disposable income of families. However, 77% of the personal benefits of these tax breaks has gone to the wealthiest 8% of the population. To address this inequality, the Government will introduce a basic tax exemption for working poor families.
As a component of the Government’s policy of deficit reduction, transfers to the provinces were substantially decreased in the mid-90s. Subsequently social investments such as affordable child care and funding to community service agencies have languished.
To address this problem, the Government will invest in quality early childhood education and child care services which will be universal, inclusive and accessible. And it will work with other levels of government and non-governmental partners to find ways to provide community-based organizations with steady financing so they can continue to deliver important services.
Recognizing the impact that homelessness and substandard housing have on the well-being of our children, the Government will take a leading role in the creation of affordable housing. In partnership with the provinces and municipalities, the Government will produce 20,000 affordable units yearly and increase the number of refurbished units to 10,000.
It is becoming more difficult for Canada to present itself as a diverse and welcoming society when over half of recent newcomers and more than 37% of visible minority communities are living in poverty in our large cities.
To ensure that newcomers to Canada can obtain gainful employment and care for their families, the Government will invest in better language and skills training and will work closely with other governments to assure Canada’s capacity for recognizing the foreign credentials of its new citizens.
The Government recognizes that not all improvements to the Canadian way of life come with a price tag. There are regulatory measures that can be undertaken that will contribute to a higher quality of life for Canadians overall.
To encourage all employers to pay wages appropriate to a rising cost of living, the Government will raise the federal minimum wage above the poverty line, to a living wage.
In addition, we will open up the Employment Insurance system to provide unemployed persons with easy access to much needed education and skills training.
The Canadian people have made considerable sacrifices over the past decade to put the country’s finances back in order so that we can again invest in the well-being of Canadians, all Canadians. The Government is pleased to announce today that the time has come for Canadians to reap the rewards for those sacrifices."
Marcel Lauzière, President, Canadian Council on Social Development
John Anderson, Vice-President of Research, Canadian Council on Social Development