Doing More for Canada's Poor
Late on the cold, snowy night of January 4, 1996, my wife Olivia Chow and I, both city councillors at the time, were walking up Spadina Ave. As we walked, we checked on the well-being of the homeless we passed and discussed the problem of poverty in Toronto.
The next morning I woke to learn that a homeless man, Eugene Upper, had frozen to death that night on the opposite side of Spadina from where we’d walked. Since that day, I have redoubled my efforts to prevent homelessness and eliminate poverty.
Homelessness is one of the most visible signs of poverty, its devastating effects felt by one in four Toronto families, nearly half of all new immigrants to the city, and over a third of its First Nations population.
It is one of Canada’s most enduring disgraces that – twenty years after Ed Broadbent stood in the House of Commons and won unanimous support for a commitment to end child poverty by 2000 – 9.2 per cent of the country’s children still live in poverty, a drop of just 2 percentage points over those twenty years.
Toronto’s not-for-profits have done admirable work on poverty. The Toronto City Summit Alliance authored the seminal Modernizing Income Security for Working Age Adults report, which laid out a map for poverty reduction. Meanwhile, the Recession Relief Coalition, spearheaded by John Andras, has been one of the city’s strongest voices against cuts to vital social services.
Last December, the Ontario government launched its 25-in-5 Poverty Reduction Strategy. First reports show that progress has been made, but much work remains and Ontario’s resources are finite. The City of Toronto is wracked by debt, while not-for-profits are stretched to the limit.
The federal government has an obligation to step in. The safety net needs to be strengthened and children need better opportunities earlier in life.
Yet the Harper government has no plan to eliminate poverty, just the occasional band-aid. It’s a short-sighted and unjust approach.
Smart strategies to eliminate poverty are not only the right thing to do, they also grow the economy by injecting spending that creates jobs and boosts local business.
Improving access and increasing benefits to EI, as well as increasing the GIS for seniors to close the poverty gap (at a cost of just $700 million), are key steps. People dependent on those benefits spend what they receive, which means these increases would boost local economies and create jobs, as well as helping families in need.
Investment in social housing is also an urgent need. In addition to getting the Eugene Uppers of the city off the streets and into homes, housing takes pressure off families and ensures stable environments for children. Less money spent on outrageous Toronto rents for those who can’t afford them means more money spent on healthy food. What’s more, building or upgrading social housing creates jobs.
Temporary workers need stronger labour rights, new immigrants need recognition of foreign credentials, and many vulnerable groups, whether new Canadians or First Nations, need pathways to good jobs. Many working poor need access to skills training.
Eliminating child poverty, however, remains the most pressing moral issue in Canada today. With its clawbacks and hidden rules, the Canada Child Tax Benefit is neither as effective, nor as big as it needs to be. My party has proposed raising that benefit to $5,000, as well as calling for a national public childcare program and improved nutrition education.
In contrast to Mr. Harper’s band-aid measures, the proposals above are part of the New Democrats’ practical plan to eliminate poverty, working with the provinces as necessary. We have introduced the National Poverty Elimination Act, joining other bills before the House, such as the Early Learning and Childcare Act.
Eliminating poverty in Toronto will take collective action. The province, the city and the federal government must all do their part. But they won’t always be willing participants and it’s up to each citizen of our city to demand that more is done. No Torontonian deserves the lonely fate of Eugene Uppers.
and the NDP in this fight!