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Poverty: We Can do Better

This is the time of the year for giving. Unfortunately, a growing number of Canadians who face the prospect of daily poverty have little to give or share. We can do better and we can do it more intelligently. Now is the time for investigating how best to create a national Basic Income program.

As a microcosm, consider Ottawa, where I live. The city’s budget clearly showed the difficulties, for those in poverty in our city once again are the major losers. Raising their benefits, as Council decided to do, by 1.5 percent bears little relevance to the real costs of inflation for basic items, especially fruits and vegetables.

Nationally, unemployment has edged up in recent months from 6.8 percent to now over 7 percent. That, of course, excludes those who have given up looking for work. Demands on our city and food banks are soaring. In ever greater numbers, workers are becoming redundant. Widely reported technological change with ongoing mergers and downsizing is a growing reality. The ‘Food Banks Canada’ and their 2015 Hunger Count report has just released some startling facts, as the quote below shows:

“Let’s look at just one area of our economy: food security. It is estimated that food banks will serve 1,717,760 separate individuals this year. This excludes food services provided by soup kitchens and many other charities. The reasons are clear. Four million Canadians work in sales and service occupations, with median earnings of just $17,700 per year. In comparison, it costs about $18,000 per year for a single person. Those on welfare get much less. Where there are rapid downturns in the economy, such as in the fishing industry and oil fields, without a realistic safety net, the results are disastrous. For example, not unexpectedly, in some areas of the “oil Patch”, demands on Food Banks have jumped by 70 percent in October, alone.”

Economists in increasing numbers are speaking out against the trends in wealth and power concentration and the impact this has on society. At the same time, our welfare system is broken, inappropriate and overwhelmed.

We need a new social safety net that is less costly to administer and less demeaning. It has been proven from experiments around the world, including in Canada, that when people have a guaranteed cash base, there will be improvements to both families and communities. Most importantly, the impacts of financial stress on physical and emotional health have been proven to have a significant economic and social cost to society.

It is much like attacking climate change. Must we wait until there is growing national economic chaos and social devastation? Or, should we take action now to address the root cause of poverty? A basic Income is not a panacea, as Food Bank Canada clearly points out, but it is the logical and economically right step for moving towards eliminating poverty. For business, it will also promote a more stable economy since it increases the spending power of low income Canadians.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has stated, “We Can Do Better.” Now is the time to prove it, with federal leadership and action. It is no longer a question as to whether we can afford a basic income program. Rather, can we afford not to?

— Joe Foster is a basic income advocate living in Ottawa.

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