Anti-poverty groups received a jolt early in October, when they woke up to this headline: "Only 6% of Canadians are poor, UN finds."
To most of us, that sounds like good news. But the story’s subhead made the professionally compassionate squirm: "Figure is one-third of the rate most often cited by social groups."
In other words, these groups’ pronouncements about Canadian poverty levels do not correspond to reality. Predictably, the rhetoric they frequently fall into is often as skewed as their claims.
"To have 1.6 million children living below the low-income cutoff demonstrates a real problem," Ellen Adelberg of the Canadian Council on Social Development intoned solemnly last Canada Day. Like similar groups, the Council regularly cites Statistics Canada data on income distribution as descriptive of poverty levels, despite Statscan’s frequent and increasingly explicit disclaimers. The LICO figure is based solely on annual income; it has never included other kinds of wealth that are actual, everyday components of most people’s finances – such as drawings on capital, government services in kind and parental support of university students.
Or listen to what Joan Johannson of the Canadian Association of the Non-Employed had to say to a Conservative Party task force last spring: "Canadian society has left the poor to starve. We no longer care about our neighbours as ourselves."
These philanthropists always fail to mention the breadth and depth of Canada’s social safety nets, which funnel billions of dollars a year into the pockets of lower income people. Anyway, where are all the starving children? A walk through the poorest neighbourhoods in any of Canada’s cities will fail to turn up the expected scenes of Dickensian misery. Their absence points to the fundamental flaw in the poverty lobbyists’ understanding – its focus on the relative status of individuals rather than the real physical deprivation that has always been the commonsense definition of poverty.
It’s refreshing, therefore, to hear common sense from a neutral source, the UN’s International Labour Organization. Its recent study covering many countries, Key Indicators of the Labour Market 1999, looks at unemployment, illiteracy, labour productivity and the relationship between poverty and income distribution.
The ILO finding of a 6% poverty rate in Canada places us second among major industrial countries, just above Japan’s 4% but well below France and Germany’s 12%, Britain’s 13% and the United States’ 14%. . The report has established US$14.40 per day per capita as the boundary line that defines poverty – about $20 in Canadian funds.
The $20 threshold made the director of the National Council of Welfare, cry foul: "A poverty line of $8,000 a year . . . is ridiculous. It’s too low to even think about." Indeed, it might be impossible to live on that income in Toronto or Vancouver, but it’s feasible in low-rent cities like Winnipeg or Regina. That much money doesn’t buy the amenities enjoyed by the prosperous mass of Canadians, but it’s enough to keep one’s belly full and a roof over one’s head. Perhaps it’s also time to ask what guaranteeing the luxuries on top of the necessities does to the work ethic.
It must also be noted that the $20-a-day standard refers to per capita income. But most low-income people live in families, and multiplying $8,000 a year by three or four to account for households changes the picture dramatically.
Those who work in the poverty business, whether in the public or private sector, have a vested interest in overstating the problem. If those in charge of public policy listen to them, we risk spending tax dollars on those who don’t need assistance. That diminishes our capacity to extend significant help to genuinely needy people like the handicapped unemployable.
Leaders of the poverty industry will continue to clamour for more "resourcing" long after the last vestiges of poverty in Canada have been wiped out. We need regular infusions of sound data from sources like the ILO to put their claims in perspective.