In 1992, the United Nations declared October 17th the International Day of the Eradication of Poverty and 1996 as the International Year of the Eradication of Poverty. At the world summit for Social Development in 1995 leaders of 117 nations promised: "We commit ourselves to the goal of eradicating poverty in the world, through decisive national actions and international cooperation, as an ethical, social, political and economic imperative of human kind."
When the word poverty is used we think of the Third World and pictures of starving children. When we talk about poverty in Canada, however, we are not referring to this type of suffering but rather a situation of deprivation and need. It is not because of a lack of riches, as is the case of Third World countries, but rather a result of the unequal distribution of wealth. Poverty in Canada is a matter of lining up for food at food banks and using soup kitchens rather than starving. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to think that poverty in Canada is not a very serious matter.
The most widely used measure of poverty in Canada is Statistics Canada's Low-Income Cut-Offs, which encompasses those incomes in which a household of a given size must spend 20% morethan the average of 36% (i.e. a total of 56%) on three main categories of expenditure: food, shelter and clothing.
This figure includes as poor not only those families and individuals on social assistance but also those people working at minimum wage and other lower income working people. Using these figures, a family of three in Halton with an income of less than $22,500 in 1995 would be considered poor.
The effects of poverty and unhealthy diets are well documented. For example, the evidence shows that:
The 1991 Canadian Census reports indicated that in Halton there were over 3,300 poor families with children, which equates to over 6,000 children. In Halton, one child in 17 is poor. In our community the poor have taken it upon themselves to do something about poverty by forming the Halton Anti-Poverty Coalition. The Coalition is a group of concerned individuals and organizations that have come together to provide a voice for the poor in Halton and promote self-help.
The recently published Price of Eating Well in Halton by the Halton Social Planning Council and Volunteer Centre and Halton Health Department documents the impact of poverty income on access to food by looking at different income scenarios for families and the living costs of those Halton residents. It demonstrates that families with a limited income have to pay fixed living costs such as rent and utilities. It is only their left over budget (if any) that pays for more "flexible" expenses, most importantly, food. For families in these circumstances there is simply not enough money to purchase food for a basic healthy diet. Food is a basic human right,not a commodity to be sold to only those that can afford it.
There is a relationship between the investment countries make in their citizens and rates of poverty. Canada's spending on income security was two-thirds that of Belgium, and less than one-half of that of Denmark and Sweden.
The nine OECD countries spent an average of 16.9% of their GDP on income security. Canada spent 11.9%. According to the Bread for the World Institute, Canada has the second to the highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world at 13.5 %. Only the USA had a higher child poverty rate than Canada.
What is the federal government doing to end poverty in Canada? Poverty has increased in Canada. The number of poor families increased from 701,000 in 1973 to 988,000 in 1992, a jump of 41%. Latest poverty numbers (1995) show a record number of children in Canada - 1, 447,000 - living in poverty, a 55% increase since 1989. Yet the federal and provincial governments are making cuts in social security spending. The Canada Assistance Plan, which guaranteed quality and equity in our education, health and social services system across this country, has been rescinded and replaced by the Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST).
It is time to set national standards guaranteeing basic economic and social rights. The government can then focus on the real causes of poverty. The eradication of hunger and poverty is a question of political will to make change, to encourage local food production and to generate "good" jobs with adequate incomes so that all people can live a life of dignity and well-being. October 17th marks a sad day for Canada and for Halton. In one of the wealthiest countries of the world, the word poverty refers to the present instead of a bygone era.
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