Should Canadians care about poverty?

Writing in the Institute for Research on Public Policy’s Policy Options magazine, York University’s (and PEF member) Dennis Raphael comments on poverty in Canada:

In modern industrialized nations such as Canada, poverty is best understood as a barrier to citizens, communities and entire societies reaching their full potential. Living in poverty limits participation in a wide range of cultural, economic, educational, political and other societal activities expected of citizens. While not as devastating to human health and well-being as the experience of poverty in the developing world, the effects of exclusion from common activities on Canadians’ health and quality of life can be profound.

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Economic concerns relate to the inability of Canadians to develop the skills necessary for coping with rapidly changing economic environments. These require that the citizenry adjust to rapidly changing occupational requirements. Living under conditions of deprivation makes it difficult to accumulate these adaptation skills.

From an ethical perspective, Canadians believe all members of society should have an opportunity to lead rich, fulfilling lives and that no one should face barriers that make such goals difficult or even impossible to obtain. Legally, the Canadian Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and numerous international covenants to which Canada is a signatory require that Canadians be provided with the opportunities and supports required to live fulfilling lives free of fear, deprivation and exclusion. By these criteria, Canada is repeatedly found by UN committees to fall short of meeting these requirements.

From a health perspective, poverty is a primary cause of disease, illness and shortened life expectancy. Promoting health and preventing disease is a long-established goal of health policy in Canada and essential to the sustainability of the health care system. With respect to safety, it is well established that the incidence and experience of poverty are the main causes of crime in communities. Poverty profoundly affects Canadians’ quality of life.

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Why does a wealthy nation such as Canada have 15 percent of its children living in internationally defined relative poverty, while far less wealthy nations such as Denmark and Finland have less than 3 percent of their children living under such conditions? The immediate answer is that Canada has one of the highest proportions of low-paid workers, provides lower benefits for those unable to work or experiencing unemployment and has less spending related to pensions, disability and families than most developed nations,

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Canada limits assistance benefits since our policy-makers believe generous benefits lead to a preference for relief payments rather than gainful employment. This reflects an implicit — and frequently explicit — view that people are poor due to their own failings. One consequence of this … is that governments do little to improve the problematic living conditions experienced by low-income people who are either part of or outside the workforce.

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Accumulated empirical evidence on the political economy of poverty in developed nations indicates that in the longer term, the influence of political parties that support reducing poverty is enhanced by implementation of electoral reform. Harvard economists Alesina and Glaeser have shown that poverty levels are lower and government commitments to supporting citizens stronger when popular vote is more closely translated into representation in the House of Commons. These analyses of the influence of the political upon public policy toward poverty are consistent with Canadian political experience since the end of the Second World War.

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