SPECIAL REPORT

THE FACE OF HUNGER

FOOD BANKS AND SOUP KITCHENS HAVE BECOME A ROUTINE PART OF CANADIAN LIFE

HOLGER JENSEN February 12 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

THE FACE OF HUNGER

FOOD BANKS AND SOUP KITCHENS HAVE BECOME A ROUTINE PART OF CANADIAN LIFE

HOLGER JENSEN February 12 1990

Vicki Adam owned two fur coats and many other trappings of prosperity until her stockbroker husband suffered three strokes that left him crippled and barely able to speak. Then, in December, she stood in line outside the Polish Community Hall on Vancouver’s east side, waiting for a handout of free food. Adam, who looks older than her 49 years, wept as she explained how her husband’s illness had wiped out her family’s affluence. “We gave to charity in the past when we had money,” she said. “Now, we have to take charity. I never thought I would be on the receiving end.” The Adams and their 17-year-old son now live in a rented apartment that consumes $850 of their monthly $1,114 welfare cheque. The rest barely covers utilities and leaves little for food. “We eat once a day, and there are days when there is nothing to eat,” said Vicki Adam, whose family is now among the one in seven Canadians who cannot be sure of having enough money to feed themselves.

Fixture: Economists blame a combination of factors, including rising taxes, unemployment (which stood at 7.5 per cent of the workforce in December, compared with 7.4 per cent a year earlier), soaring rents in many cities and cuts in governments' social spending. Food banks, once viewed as temporary measures that were expected to disappear after the country recovered from the 1981-1982 recession, have become a permanent fixture on the Canadian landscape. Said Edmund Bloos, who manages a food bank in Regina: “We thought we were giving out a food supplement, but now people are living off what they get from us.”

At the same time, social workers and others say that they are disturbed by the swelling ranks of hungry children in Canada. Indeed, Canadians under the age of 16 now make up fully one-quarter of those living below the poverty line (page 63). Havi Echenberg, executive director of the Ottawa-based National Anti-Poverty Organization, said that for children to go hungry in an advanced industrialized society like Canada’s “shows how much our values have slipped.”

Security: Echenberg said that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government was partly to blame for that because it is preoccupied with reducing the federal budget deficit instead of committing itself to full employment and strengthening the social-security safety net for those who cannot work. Added Echenberg: “Collectively, we have shown that we are prepared to live with 13 to 15 per cent of our population being poor, and probably hungry, so the other 85 per cent can enjoy a higher standard of living.”

According to the National Council of Welfare, an appointed body that advises the federal minister of health and welfare, 3.7 million citizens—or 14.8 per cent of Canada’s population—now live below the poverty line (a complex measurement that varies from one region to another). In fact, that figure actually represents 341,000 fewer people than in 1984, when 16.8 per cent of the population was left impoverished by the recession of the early 1980s. But experts say that the poverty-line statistics fail to reflect the fact that the number of Canadians facing extreme poverty is actually increasing as a result of high rents, rising taxes, low minimum wages and welfare payments that are not indexed to take account of inflation. Said Gerard Kennedy, executive director of Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank: “Our impression of a decline in poverty is illusory, because there has been an increase in the numbers of people who have less money. The depth of poverty is increasing.”

According to Statistics Canada, most of the 3.7 million Canadians who fall below Ottawa’s poverty-income levels are acutely poor; that is, their incomes are less than 60 per cent of the cutoff. Such people can seldom afford to feed themselves adequately. According to the National Council of Welfare, Canada’s hard-core poor include 56.7 per cent of the nation’s 390,000 single mothers, more than half of all single women over 65, half of all the single young people aged 16 to 24 and 16.1 per cent, or 913,000, of children under 16.

Kitchens: The chilling evidence of poverty and hunger is visible everywhere. Maj. David Perry, a Salvation Army spokesman in Calgary, said that the average age level of his city’s skid row inhabitants has markedly decreased over the past eight years. He added, "Now, they are more likely to be in their 20s than in their 50s.” As well, the lines at the nation’s food banks and soup kitchens are getting longer. In Toronto, one of Canada’s richest cities, with an average family income of $59,441 and a low unemployment rate (4.0 per cent), more than 200 separate food distribution programs are currently providing food to 84,000 people a month—twice the number served by food banks in the city three years ago. In St. John’s, where unemployment hovers around 16 per cent, 1,300 people a month seek help from food banks, nearly double the total last May.

Precisely what constitutes poverty in Canada is a matter of considerable debate among economists and social observers. On average, Canadians are deemed to be living below the poverty line when they have to spend more than 58.5 per cent of income on the essentials of life: food, clothing and shelter. In rural areas, that line ranges from $8,759 for a single person to $17,377 for a family of four. In cities with a population of more than 500,000, where the cost of living is higher, the line is $12,867 for a single person and $25,525 for a family of four.

Poverty: According to Michael Bradfield, an economist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, poverty is relative to the society where it occurs. “Our poor,” said Bradfield, “cannot be compared to those in the streets of Calcutta, because Canadian poor have to walk down Bloor Street [an exclusive Toronto shopping area] and look in the shop windows to see what they cannot afford.” And Christopher Bagley, a professor of social work at the University of Calgary who frequently visits India, says that Ottawa’s poverty lines are misleading. Said Bagley: “We think of poor people as those having black-and-white TV sets. They survive comfortably at a level the Third World would be very happy at.”

Bagley claims that the only really poor people in Canada are its native people, whom he described as “a tiny fraction of the population whom we ignore as an uncomfortable fact.” As for other Canadians below the poverty line, said Bagley, “the welfare state is good enough that no one starves, no one lies in the street and freezes to death. You could argue that there is no real poverty in Canada, just some people who don’t have as much as the average person, because some of them are poor spenders. They cannot manage their lives and are only marginally efficient.”

Still, Canadian-style poverty brings with it the ache of hunger. A mayoral commission examining hunger in Regina reported in October that “when you’re poor, food becomes an option.” Added the report: “The reality is that poor people are not wasting money; they simply do not have enough. All the careful budgeting in the world and all the lessons on nutrition and cooking, while helpful, simply cannot stretch too few food dollars into lasting an entire month.” Although Canada’s poor rarely go without enough to eat, that is only because charitable organizations help to provide minimum dietary essentials. Louise Leger, 26, a single mother in Moncton, N.B., said that she cannot feed her two children without help from a food bank, even though she receives $724 a month in welfare payments. Leger told Maclean’s that her 22-month-old son requires a special diet while recovering from severe burns suffered in a kitchen accident in October, 1988. But Leger said that welfare officials refuse to increase her allowance.

Lynn Martin, 40, a single mother with two school-age daughters in Winnipeg, receives $950 a month in welfare payments but says that she has to dip into the food and clothing money every month just to pay her rent. “By the time you pay for the necessities, there’s no money left,” she said. Carl Macdonald, an unemployed construction worker in Vancouver who has been collecting welfare for the past seven years, said that he goes to a food bank to supplement the $500 monthly welfare cheque he currently receives. At 39, he says that he has lost hope of getting another construction job because “they want younger men.” Many of the hard-core poor are saved from hunger by a nationwide network of food banks that solicit food from companies and from the public and distribute it to the needy. According to the Toronto-based Canadian Association of Food Banks, 155 such organizations across Canada supply or operate at least 1,100 grocery distribution outlets and 400 meal programs. Each month in 1989, food banks provided food for an average of 378,000 Canadians. Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank, for one, handles about 500,000 lb. of donated food a month, and distributes groceries and produce to more than 200 Toronto-area agencies, which in turn hand out the food to needy people. Officials at the food bank said that, although it tries to offer a variety of food, it is often limited to providing about 12 basic items, including bread, breakfast cereals and dried pasta. Supplies of such protein-rich foods as canned ham and peanut butter are scarce and have to be rationed.

Handouts: The very existence of food banks is controversial. Penelope Rowe, executive director of the Community Services Council in St. John’s, for one, argues that the more food banks there are, the more people use them. “By establishing a service, you create a demand,” said Rowe. Others contend that not all people on welfare need food handouts. Said the University of Calgary’s Bagley: “Food banks are a useful supplement to the welfare state for bad organizers of their resources.”

Still, few critics claim that food banks are being abused. They argue that turning to charitable institutions for food is so degrading that few Canadians would do it unless they had to. Many food banks administer a means test, which requires an applicant to prove that he cannot afford to buy food.

Many experts say that Ottawa is partly to blame for the worsening difficulties of the poor. John Myles, a sociologist at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said that the Mulroney government, in what he described as a rush to make the Canadian economy more competitive, has overlooked the essential role played by social policy. “Massive economic change always creates winners and losers,” said Myles. “Social policies are necessary to redistribute the costs and benefits of that change.” According to Graham Riches, a professor of social work at the University of Regina, the shift away from manufacturing jobs to service-sector employment in the Canadian economy is making Canadians poorer. Said Riches: “The only jobs which are being created are primarily in the service sector, low-paying and not able to support families.”

But Michael McCracken, for one, president of the Ottawa-based economic research firm Informetrica Ltd., rejected contentions that the lot of the poor had worsened since the Mulroney government took office in 1984. He also disputed the notion that Canada has become a more competitive and less compassionate society under the current government. Said McCracken: “We are a richer society than we were 10 years ago, but we’re no meaner or leaner than we were a decade ago.” As well, McCracken said that food banks help welfare recipients and others living below the poverty line to stretch their income by reducing the amount of money they have to spend on groceries.

Minimum: In fact, about half of the Canadians who live below the poverty line are members of the class of so-called working poor, for whom employment is no guarantee against hunger. According to the National Council of Welfare, the adult minimum wage across Canada ranges from $4.25 an hour in Newfoundland to $5 an hour in the Northwest Territories. A worker in Nova Scotia who earns the provincial minimum wage of $4.50 an hour can earn only $8,775 a year full time. After paying income taxes, Canada Pension Plan contributions and unemployment insurance premiums, the worker would take home $7,818—well below the poverty line for Halifax. If the minimum-wage worker had a family, then he could get more money by living on welfare.

Shelter: Even Canadians who earn salaries well above the minimum wage have suffered a drop in purchasing power in recent years. Michael Goldberg, a senior research associate with the Vancouver-based Social Planning and Research Council of B.C., pointed out that, because of inflation and, in particular, the cost of shelter, “a person earning $7.50 an hour is really making the equivalent of the minimum wage of the early 1970s.” And the hardest hit are the young. Said Dalhousie’s Bradfield: “When we’re talking child poverty, we must remember that many of their parents are probably under 30.” He added, “To make ends meet, both parents have to work, which causes marital breakups and results in more single-parent families.”

Young married couples are also least able to cope with the soaring cost of housing, which Bradfield called “unbearable” in cities that offer the most jobs. The average price of a Toronto home has risen to $273,698 in 1989 from $75,694 in 1980, nearly a fourfold increase in a decade when incomes no more than doubled.

As if that were not enough, the working poor have also been hit by the biggest tax increases. Jean Swanson, head of a Vancouver lobby group called End Legislated Poverty, accused the federal Conservatives of making Canada “the only country among 24 industrialized nations that doesn’t have a wealth tax.” Figures provided by the Welfare Council show that a poor family earning $20,000 a year has had to pay tax increases totalling 386 per cent since 1984. At the same time, taxes for a middleincome family earning $50,000 a year have gone up only 15 per cent.

Meanwhile, Walter Block, an economist and senior research fellow at Vancouver’s right-wing Fraser Institute, blames Ottawa for spending too much, rather than too little, on social-security programs. Said Block: “The welfare system impoverishes the poor because it takes away their initiative and incentive to work. We should substitute government welfare with private charity and concentrate our efforts on increasing productivity, which creates jobs.”

Welfare: Social workers and others who work among Canada’s poor generally agree that jobs are more important than increased welfare payments. But many say that they would prefer to see a more balanced approach that would provide a guaranteed minimum income for those who can work and better protection for those who cannot. Said Bradfield: “It needs a political commitment in Ottawa to full employment, like Sweden, an educational commitment to give people the skills to fill those jobs and more realistic cash-transfer programs for the unemployable.”

For Vicki Adam, standing in a Vancouver food line, the answer is for governments to hand out more money. “The government should be paying more welfare,” she said. “There may be some who abuse it, but the majority really depend on it.” Still, unless hunger becomes a political issue in Canada and forces governments to step in, Adam and other poor Canadians are unlikely to receive increased social-security payments. But, as Winnipeg sociologist Harvey Stevens pointed out, “poverty is not a vote-getter. The people who use food banks are certainly not the folks who make a difference at election time.”