PODIUM

Policies based on poor excuses

'Poverty simply isn’t "in ” anymore as a political issue’

Bill Neville October 5 1981
PODIUM

Policies based on poor excuses

'Poverty simply isn’t "in ” anymore as a political issue’

Bill Neville October 5 1981

Policies based on poor excuses

PODIUM

'Poverty simply isn’t "in ” anymore as a political issue’

Bill Neville

Ten years ago Senator David Croll began the report of his Special Senate Committee on Poverty in Canada by declaring that “poverty is the great social issue of our time.” In that year of 1971, according to Statistics Canada’s definition, you were “poor” if you earned $1,900 a year as a single person or $4,400 as a family of four. Almost five million Canadians—25.1 per cent of the entire populationfell within that definition a decade ago.

Today StatsCan says you are poor if you make less than $6,000 a year as a single person or $13,000 as a family of four. Even at these inflated levels, almost three million Canadians—one in every eight—are now officially living in poverty. That’s considerable progress from a decade earlier, but it hardly says we have solved the problem. In the past five years the number of female-headed families living in poverty has actually increased from 727,000 to 759,000. Yet what a decade ago was called “the great social issue of our time” today might best be described as the great silent issue of our day.

Poverty — more correctly,

Canadian poverty as opposed to the North-South international variety—simply isn’t “in” anymore as a political issue. Except for a few specialinterest groups, Canadians have stopped even talking, much less acting, on this “great social issue of our time.” The subject rated only 27 references, most of them brief, in Hansard for the first 14 months of the current Parliament. Of the 80-odd bills dealt with, or currently before this House of Commons, only one, a $35-a-month increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for pensioners, could be termed an antipoverty measure.

All three federal political parties held general meetings during the past 12 months and the word “poverty” was hardly heard at any of them. During my five years as chief of staff to Joe Clark, policies to help the poor seldom received much discussion in Progressive Conservative inner sanctums. The major policy initiative the party took— on mortgage interest and property tax deductibility— would have helped the poor (an amazing number of those categorized as poor, especially rural poor, are also homeowners), but its target was clearly middle-class suburbia.

What has happened to turn poverty from the rallying cry of the “Just Society” and “Great Society” ’60s into the nonissue of the ’80s? Three things, probably. First, government finances, especially federal government finances, are in a mess and antipoverty measures cost money. Second, the indexing of.most social programs allows politicians to claim they have been sensitive and responsive to the needs of low-income Canadians. If you were poor before indexing, you’re still poor with it; you just haven’t fallen as far behind as you would otherwise. Third—and most impor-

tant of all—we clearly are in an age when income shares in our society are being determined by the rawest kind of power-politics among special-interest groups. Postal workers can claim $25,000 because they have a militant union, a Jean-Claude Parrot and the power to deny the rest of us our mail service. The poor have no union, no leader and no power to even get our attention, much less punish us.

The cynical truth probably is that, while the poor get a particular kick in the teeth when economic times are rough, it takes good economic times for the rest of us, including our political leaders, to pay any real attention to their needs. When all of us are sharing in new national wealth, we are more likely to be in the mood to care a bit about our less fortunate citizens.

But even assuming times do get better and even assuming poverty is at least one of “the great social issues of our time,” we are going to have to bite a very hard political bullet if we are going to make any serious impact on the problem. When you strip away all the jargon of the so-called social animators, you are poor for one reason—and one reason only—and that is you lack money. Poverty can only be dealt with by putting more money in the hands of the poor and we will never put enough gmoney in those hands as long £as we insist on putting so much sof it into non-poor hands &ltthrough universal programs. SThis year, for example, Ottawa will pay out $5.9 billion in universal Old Age Security and $2.2 billion in GIS supplements to those in real need, resulting in the socially unenlightened situation in which a millionaire couple can collect $443 a month, while a widow without a penny of her own will get exactly the same $443 in federal payments. The federal government will spend as much on universal family allowances ($2 billion) as it will put up for the needs-related Canada Assistance Plan. Ottawa will pour $1.2 billion (in addition to all employer-employee contributions) into an unemployment insurance program, which has little to do with unemployment or insurance—more than it is prepared to invest in manpower training and other programs to help those who really cannot find work, but who might at least take a job if offered one. It’s a strange theory of income redistribution.

I rather doubt that federal politicians, who ran away from one family allowance policy revision in 1971 because it was going to cut off families earning $25,000 a year, are going to tackle the issue of universality without a push from the poor. It’s a chilling thought, but it may well be that what the poor really need is a Jean-Claude Parrot of their own. At least he’s able to get our attention.

Bill Neville is the former chief of staff to Conservative leader Joe Clark.