Define Poverty Stop Poverty Fraud

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Poverty, Worth A Look

I popped into Staples this week to buy some odds and ends. The cashier greeted me cheerfully: “Would you like to contribute two dollars to the Special Olympics?” I have an answer rehearsed for such occasions: “No. I like to keep my shopping and my charity separate.”

That objective seems to be becoming ever more difficult. Aggressive corporate panhandling seems to have become a feature of retail checkouts.

One definition of aggressive panhandling – which is an issue in the current Toronto mayoral election – is begging while standing in somebody’s way. That is exactly what the checkout shakedown amounts to. Indeed, it is worse, since the presence of others renders it a less-than-subtle form of social pressure through embarrassment.

Another similarity with panhandling is the manufacture of plight to make problems appear worse than they are (bad though they may already be). The most egregious recent corporate example is the Toonies for Tummies campaign being run by major Canadian food stores, including Loblaw, Dominion, Sobeys and A&P, which features both television ads and shocking store displays.

Shoppers are greeted at check-outs with a poster of a child wearing a T-shirt claiming “I’m Hungry,” and with the suggestion that “1 in 5 Canadian children lives with hunger.”

If true, this figure is a sweeping condemnation of our social welfare system, and an indictment of all Canadians. No shopper who believes it could come away feeling anything but ashamed and disturbed. But is it true?

The campaign is being run by the Grocery Industry Foundation … Together (GIFT). When I questioned him, GIFT’s executive director, John McNeil, claimed the one-in-five figure came from the reports of Campaign 2000, a coalition of activists. He cited corroboration from Sue Cox, former head of the Daily Bread Food Bank.

Ms. Cox claimed in a letter that “child hunger and child poverty are inextricably linked” and then pointed to Campaign 2000’s 2003 report card, which stated that the current rate of child poverty was one in six. She wrote that Daily Bread believed the figure was closer to one in five. She also declared that “we know for a fact that in many large urban areas, like the GTA, the child poverty rate is closer to one in three.”

The key issue is that while child hunger and child poverty may be “inextricably linked,” they are not synonymous. Hungry children are almost certainly poor, but are those defined to live in poverty necessarily hungry? Most important, exactly how do we define poverty?

I asked Mr. McNeil if he had ever heard of Chris Sarlo. He said he hadn’t; was he somebody who didn’t believe there was a “child hunger issue?”

By no means. Professor Sarlo, an economist at the University of Nipissing, is an expert on poverty who is deeply concerned about hungry children, but has noted that “Canadians are not well-served by inflated claims supported by non-existent evidence.”

Just yesterday, the Fraser Institute released a report by Professor Sarlo pointing out that the proportion of Canadians living in poverty in 2004 dipped – by his careful estimates – to 4.9%, its lowest level in history. His figures for child poverty also show a decline from 10.9% in 1996 to 5.8% in 2004. But he notes that even this figure shouldn’t be equated with “living with hunger.”

Professor Sarlo has always been unpopular with poverty activists because he insists on pointing out the inconsistency in their use of statistics. Activists define poverty in relative terms then equate it with absolute poverty, that is, the lack of the “basic necessities of life,” which is the basis for professor Sarlo’s calculations. In fact, the one in six referred to by Campaign 2000 relates to those who live below the so-called low income cutoff (LICO), a complex measure that was never intended by Statistics Canada as a “poverty line.”

Under relative definitions of poverty, poor people get better off all the time, but things never seem to get better for the same reason that half of all Canadians are perpetually destined to be “below average.”

There can be no doubt that there are hungry children in Canada, and every effort should be made to deal with their plight. But here is just one reason why gross exaggeration of their problems is a bad thing:

In the lobby of my local Loblaws this week there is a distinguished and friendly gentleman in a blazer and a beret. He is there every year, selling poppies. He does not harass shoppers, although many stop to talk to him. This gentleman is a veteran of the Second World War. To suggest to him, and to all those who have fought for, or helped to build, Canada that the fruit of their struggles is a country in which one in five children goes hungry is a gross insult, a slap in the face. Worst of all, it is a lie.

The food companies running this campaign undoubtedly regard their actions as virtuous, but if they produced financial figures to the same standard as their Toonies for Tummies statistics, their executives would all be hauled before the OSC. The notion that gross exaggeration in a good cause is somehow justified merely gets good causes a bad name. Moreover, just as aggressive panhandling drives away tourists, the corporate version may drive away shoppers.