Where is Poverty in the Debate?
by Errol Black
During the current election campaign we’ve heard a good deal of noise from people with power about how hard done by we are in Manitoba. Their biggest beef is that corporate profits and personal incomes are taxed too high relative to resource rich provinces to the west of us.
However, we haven’t heard anything from individuals and families who are trapped in poverty situations – earning their poverty in low-wage, short-hour jobs, unemployed, on welfare, homeless, dependent on food banks and soup kitchens, etc. This is because the poor have no voice and no political clout. Therefore, they are of little interest to the people who run businesses and governments in our communities.
The sad thing about this state of affairs is that we have massive amounts of data and analyses which confirm that pervasive poverty adversely affects virtually all aspects of life in our communities including, crime, ill health, poor educational outcomes, and the overall quality of life, which in turn imposes significant burdens on resources in the health care, educational and justice systems. This was set out very clearly in a book published in 2010 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Manitoba, titled The Social Determinants of Health in Manitoba and by Wilkinson and Pickett (2009) in their international best seller The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better.
Given these links between poverty and everything else, it would seem to make sense that in this province political parties would be attempting to develop economic and social plans that include at their core a commitment to invest in policies and programs that are designed to drive down poverty and alleviate the pressures on all levels of the public sector.
Is it too late for us to demand that party leaders participate in a debate based on poverty-related issues?
In yesterday’s leaders debate, all three leaders referred to poverty as a root cause of crime and comments were made about needing to support kids living in poverty and ensure them access to education. Selinger pointed to their record and intentions regarding minimum wage in recognition that poor kids have poor parents who need to earn a decent income. McFadyen is on record as opposing minimum wage increases and Jon Gerrard has been silent on the issue.
A question that won’t be raised during this election is: how are people on social assistance faring in Manitoba and what are the leaders going to do about it? The answer to this question is that people on social assistance are not doing very well. This is confirmed by a report from the National Council of Welfare on welfare incomes in 2009 which shows, amongst other things, that: (i) the welfare incomes of Manitobans rank near the bottom in most categories; and (ii) these incomes are much below welfare incomes in 1992, the peak year for Manitobans after which time they began a decline.
The poorest of the poor are those who must rely on social assistance for support. All political parties are able to avoid addressing this because people living in poverty have no political clout, and many are disillusioned and less inclined to vote.
Is it too late to get this important issue on the agenda?
Errol Black is the Chair of CCPA Manitoba