Most poverty debates are dominated by people who work, to varying degrees, in the front lines to help people who struggle to get by. Unsurprisingly, such analysts describe a very tragic individual circumstances, but before I make any forest-tree metaphors, it is worth visiting some wider facts.
By almost any measure, Canada has been one of the most successful countries in the world at reducing poverty, and most people in most provinces broadly share in that success. Here are just a few measures from the World Health Organisation, that compare Canada to a country that is poor but developing rapidly, and two of the most unsuccessful countries in the world today.
In the early 20th century, tuberculosis was a serious public health problem in North America. In 2006, there were five cases for every 100,000 Canadians, down from ten in 1990. That is an extraordinary achievement compared to Zimbabwe (557 cases per 100,000 people), North Korea (178), and Mexico (21).
On another measure, the WHO reports that all Canadian births are attended by skilled personnel compared to 97 per cent in North Korea, 94 in Mexico and 69 in Zimbabwe. The North Korean statistic for attending births sounds impressive—though one should take statistics from the Hermit Kingdom with a large grain of salt— but even if true, North Korean children are still ten times more likely to die before age five than are Canadian children. Mexican children are six times more likely and Zimbabweans fourteen times more likely.
Perhaps the ultimate WHO measure is that Canadians born today can expect to live 81 years, compared to 74, 66, and 43 in Mexico, North Korea, and Zimbabwe.
No doubt some readers will find it harshly boastful to talk about Canada’s “extraordinary achievements” compared to the suffering in other countries. But the comparisons are necessary because we are so used to being one of the world’s richest countries that we take prosperity for granted.
Poverty has been dealt a severe blow over the past century thanks to extraordinary economic growth, and that has resulted in a poverty debate largely morphing into an income distribution debate. While there are certainly some in Canada who lack the means to physically sustain themselves, this group is significantly smaller than the various groupings some commentators claim are in poverty. These latter groups are usually defined by having incomes some arbitrary amount less than the average.
For example, take this quote from another Canadian think tank: “It is inexcusable that 546,000 British Columbians, 13 per cent of the total population, live in poverty…”
Really? Over half-a-million British Columbians? The figure they quote (Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off) actually measures the number of people who spend twenty percentage points more of their income on food, clothing, and shelter than the average similar household in a similar sized community. If that last sentence is a mouthful, then it’s easy to see why some say poverty when they really mean income inequality.
But people who propagate this confusion, either out of ignorance, deviousness, or laziness, do a great disservice to people who really do lack the ability to physically sustain themselves. If such propagandists want a debate about income distribution, they should have one, rather than hijack the poverty debate with relative measurements that reveal little about actual poverty or how to solve it.
The logical conclusion of poverty being a question of income distribution (or “not enough money,” as the CBC recently framed it) is that poverty would be solved if there was more income redistribution. Yet we have more money and more dollars redistributed today than ever before.
Even assuming a modest two per cent economic growth per year, Canadians would be seven times richer today than they were in 1900. And government spending? In 1924, governments spent 11 per cent of our national wealth; today it is around 40 per cent. If solving poverty was simply a matter or making and redistributing more money, it would have been solved long ago.
The most urgent need in Canada’s effort to reduce poverty is to separate the debate on income distribution from the debate on how to help people who need a new policy approach if they are going to escape poverty.. Only when the distribution distraction is removed does a proper debate on the causes of and solutions to poverty become possible.