Published by Senator Art Eggleton on 19 May 2009
I know many readers think this is a tough sell in tough times. But I think just the opposite is true. I think the financial crisis has encouraged all of us to take stock, and make the much-needed, but too-long-deferred decisions about the direction we're going.
I think that's true of individuals and as families as we rethink household budgets. It's true of governments as they make decisions about the economy. And it's true of our collective choices about the kind of society we want to have.
So I actually think that this is the ideal time to confront the hard truths about poverty and homelessness in this country. To say, as Canadians: We can build a fairer and more just country. And that now is the time to finally tackle poverty in our country.
The challenge is not new. As far back as 1970, a special senate committee chaired by Senator David Croll, examined poverty in Canada. The Croll Report brought poverty out of the shadows and focused public attention on a problem many would prefer to have ignored.
Yet, sadly, 39 years later, the challenge of poverty still echoes across this land and the daily indignities and scarcities poverty brings are still a way of life for far too many of our fellow citizens.
Today, a staggering one in 10 Canadians still lives in poverty. That's 3.4 million people--the equivalent of every man, woman and child in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Saskatchewan --combined.
What's truly shocking is that between 800,000 and one million of those living in poverty are children--a statistic that is all the more deplorable given this country's commitment, in 1989, to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Instead, we have hardly made a dent --with double-digit rates of child poverty in every province except Alberta, Quebec and P. E. I.
This is not just a sobering statistic, it is a damning indictment. Children are the irreplaceable resource on which our future depends-- and the extent to which we provide for them, nurture them and enrich their lives will determine our country's progress and prosperity in the years to come.
Let me also say that this is as much an economic issue as it is a social one. A Calgary study calculated the economic cost of poverty to the province at more than $8 billion, every year. In Ontario, the Ontario Association of Food Banks, together with leading Canadian economists, estimated poverty costs that province $38 billion a year --or about $2,900 for every household in Ontario.
When we look at the cost of poverty for Canada as a whole the numbers are staggering: again the Ontario Association of Food Banks estimated there are $7.6 billion in additional health-care costs; between $1 billion and $2 billion in crime; $8.6 billion to $13 billion in lost productivity and more than $3 billion in so-called intergenerational costs--the costs associated with lower educational attainment of children.
And it was with these realities and costs in mind that I proposed that the Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, which I chair, conduct a comprehensive study of the major issues facing Canada's largest cities. Fittingly, the committee chose to focus first on poverty, housing and homelessness.
The committee is in Calgary this week to continue the study and learn. Calgary's new homelessness strategy and the province's poverty reduction efforts are great programs that will have an impact. We applaud their work and efforts.
But we need to make this a collective, national effort. That's what our committee's work is really all about -- drawing together the best thinking on these issues into a truly national vision.
As Senator Croll pointed out more than 30 years ago, "good intentions alone have never lightened the burden of poverty." He was right. It's time to stop making excuses and start making changes.
Art Eggleton is a Liberal senator from Toronto. He is chair of the standing committee on social affairs, science and technology.