Christmas Pudding

Could the world of tinsel and merriment that now surrounds us be merely a sham? If you believe the latest alarums from the poverty industry, trumpeted uncritically by the media, it cloaks a stark reality for the armies of Canada's poor.
Published on December 14, 1998

Could the world of tinsel and merriment that now surrounds us be merely a sham? If you believe the latest alarums from the poverty industry, trumpeted uncritically by the media, it cloaks a stark reality for the armies of Canada’s poor.

Before you choke on a drumstick, though, you’d do well to take a closer look at their claims.

According to the National Council of Welfare and Council 2000, two prominent members of the omnipresent social planning lobby, between four and five million Canadians are poor. But the method they use to calculate that number is highly suspect. In fact, Statistics Canada has regularly warned that these calculations are not a reliable poverty measure.

To start, they figure the average income for all citizens. That number is divided in half and then subjected to an enormous ideological conceit. Everyone whose income falls below that line is declared to be poor.

The holes in this logic loom larger than the space in your wallet after Christmas. First of all, the idle rich show up in the percentage. Wealthy kids in college, the affluent retired who live off savings, divorced matrons with sizeable settlements-all these magically qualify as poor because their annual incomes approach zero.

Even ordinary folks don’t show up accurately in the mix. The low-income method ignores non-cash transfers that significantly boost the living standards of the real poor. Add them up. Subsidies for rent, day care and transit, plus free dental care, prescription drugs and eyeglasses — all strands in our ample social safety net. The phony poverty figure leaves them out.

There’s another exaggeration that adds to the misreporting. It’s true that the top 20% of Canadian wage-earners have done well over the last two decades. In 1980, they earned $14 for every $1 that went to the bottom 20%; now the ratio is $22 to $1. But that doesn’t mean that the poor are less well off, just that the rich are even richer, at least before taxes. Yet the increasing spread automatically ratchets up the contentious poverty stat. The richer we get, the poorer we look.

But, you ask, dreading the Scrooge label, what about the United Nations? Didn’t it just declare that Canada was allowing its social problems to "fester"? Yessirree, and take a look at where they got their information. Seven Canadian poverty groups spoke to the UN committee and recited their own litany of skewed statistics to demonstrate neglect of the poor.

Part of the horror story touted the alleged countrywide "homelessness disaster" recently bruited through the national media. Yet Winnipeg’s Main Street Project, which provides last-ditch assistance to the most desperate, found it only needed a third of the emergency housing it had originally planned to provide. Its assistant director, Clay Lewis, maintains that the problem of homelessness has been mostly solved by regular social service agencies. Those who fall through the cracks, he says, are nearly all misanthropes, substance abusers who don’t want any "red tape" in their lives.

That doesn’t sound like disaster at all. A local minister involved with a program to renovate and maintain low-cost rental housing concurs: "While working in the inner city, I have grown increasingly tired of people who ‘pimp the poor’ and make a good living themselves, while changing little for those they serve."

Fortunately, most Canadians will enjoy their hard-earned Christmas pudding anyway. Publicly and privately generous beyond question to the less fortunate, they have earned it.

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