Senator says poverty in Canada is a national disgrace – and very costly

He’s been a Conservative all his life, and was appointed to the Senate by a Liberal Prime Minister, but Hugh Segal was totally non partisan when it came to pointing fingers at political parties about poverty.

He blames all of them.

Segal was at the Melville United Church on Nov. 23 to speak at an event organized by the Guelph and Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination and the Community Resource Centre.

Segal began by stating the task force is “an example that should and must be emulated” all over Canada.

He also said, “This country has a long way to go to eradicate the disgrace” of poverty “amid such riches.”

Segal said two or three years ago, Canada never imagined it would be in the situation it finds itself in today, with a massive deficit and banks collapsing around the world. He said the latest recession “put a lot of people out of the middle class.”

That is understandable with three million workers – almost ten per cent of the population – unemployed and not having enough “for food, shelter and the amenities to live.”

And, he added, the poverty problem is far higher in the rural areas and native communities than in the cities, but people there do not talk about it. He said food bank usage has climbed 28% in the past two years.

More troubling, he said, is “It could be anyone [falling into poverty] because so many Canadians live pay cheque to pay cheque.” What really bothers him, though, is many people see poverty as “a moral weakness,” as if being poor is some kind of moral failing or sin.

He called that “Victorian piffle of the worst kind.”

Worse, Segal said, the issue is not being seriously addressed by any political party. He said the last federal debates did not mention poverty even once, and only if people bring the issue to the forefront will the politicians take it seriously.

What is really troubling, he said, is lifting people up from  below the poverty line has benefits that affect everyone in society in a good way.

He cited a study done in the 1980s in Manitoba, where a small farming community was provided with a guaranteed income. Nobody knew who would fall below the poverty level set by the government and consequently everyone worked as hard as they normally did.

Unfortunately, a change of government saw the study dropped after five years, and ignored. It was only recently that an academic began looking at the data and found with stress reduced because everyone would be able to pay for housing, food and amenities in the community, hospital usage declined, saving money for health care, and mental health issues also dropped, saving money there as well. Crime rates dropped. In the education sector, there were fewer drop-outs.

“There was no reduction in hours worked except for some women who stayed home with young kids and elderly parents,” cutting government costs he said.

Segal believes the best way to solve poverty woes is to bring everyone above the poverty line. He added such a proposal is “not a wicked conspiracy of [the political] right or left.”

He said left wingers are concerned about jobs and unions among other issues, and the right wing is worried about “paying people to do nothing.”

Segal said governments believe they “are doing all they can. They’re not; they’re doing what’s convenient. That’s not good enough.”

He cited a program in England where a government offered the homeless cash for what would benefit them most. Some chose housing, others shoes and clothing. Nobody spent the money on booze or drugs. “When they chose their options, they went with necessities.” The cost per person was $1,277. The annual cost for dealing with the homeless through the government was $55,000.

He said that is the same thing that happened in Africa, where grandmothers (prime caregivers since mothers had often died of AIDS) were given cash. The grandmothers used the money to send grandchildren to school, which is not free there.

The thing about the British and African experiments was governments found it was far cheaper to raise people above the poverty line than it was to pay the social costs for health, education, jails, and mental health treatments.

And, Segal added, “We know the poor die sooner, and get sick more faster.

He cited statistics from the Canadian Diabetes Association, which showed those considered “poor” do considerably worse than their wealthy counterparts in fighting diabetes – until age 65. Then, with drugs provided by the government at no cost, poor people’s health can become as good as that of the wealthy.

Segal said 18% of those who rent their accommodations in Wellington County are paying more than half their income for rent. That means no money for better food, no money for school trips for the kids, and no savings. He said in the 1970s, the NDP started complaining about poverty among women. Two weeks later, the Progressive Conservative government provided a guaranteed income supplement for seniors, and all people had to do to collect it was to file their taxes. In 18 months, poverty rates among women dropped from 30% to 3%.

Not a dirty word

Segal said one problem seems to be that people think making a profit is a dirty word, and it is not.

“We can’t have it both ways,” he said, explaining that providing manufacturing jobs for people for 30 years and then letting those jobs disappear and telling workers “The government can’t protect you.” If the factory is profitable, there will be jobs.

A Trudeau Royal Commission concluded a guaranteed income could protect people so they had “enough to get by with  dignity and respect.

Segal said about 40 countries around the world have recognized it is smarter and cheaper to ensure the poor have enough to live on. And, he said, politicians that range from Winston Churchill to Richard Nixon to Robert Stanfield have recognized that poverty should be eradicated for the betterment of all their countries.

He cited a Calgary experiment that also proved that point, and it was instituted in the richest city in Canada – partly because the rich were tired of tripping over the homeless. He said when captains of industry got behind the Calgary Homeless Fund to provide housing, everyone took part and it worked.

“We could all use some of that Calgary pragmatism,” Segal said.

He said the system, as it is now, is designed “to not lift people out of poverty, but make them comfortable in poverty.”

He cited one case of a single mother who wanted to go back to university and applied and was accepted – with financial support. She knew, though, once she received educational support, she would be cut off welfare. She went to the welfare office, reported her situation, and the caseworker claimed to have an “earache” and was unable to hear her.

The women got her education, got a good job, and Segal said she paid back into the system everything she had used from it in the first year of her job.

The senator said it is time Canada starts treating people like “members of the family” rather than have them come to the back door. He noted that Ontario Works has over 800 regulations for poor people to meet.

He urged society to “extend the hand. If corporate bailouts are not a concern, then neither are policies to help the poor.”

He said of the current system of dealing with the poor, It is inefficient, dehumanizing, unproductive, entrapping and wasteful.”

Segal concluded, “In all decency, we can do better. In all decency, it is high time we try.”