By Molly McCracken
How is it that the home of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also home to high and rising poverty? Can income inequality be reversed? Learn more about Make Poverty History Manitoba’s request to faith communities to act as a moral compass in Winnipeg in the face of systemic injustice.
Version of talk given to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg January 13th, 2019 by Molly McCracken, director Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba and Steering Committee member of Make Poverty History Manitoba.
It is an honour to be here today on Treaty One land and in the homeland of the Metis Nation to share with you the work of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Make Poverty History Manitoba.
My mother, Melinda McCracken, attended this church before she died in 2002. She was a strong feminist and activist and instilled these values in me. Growing up we didn’t have a lot. Melinda was a writer, single mother and struggled with her mental health. But we were privileged by our white skin and by my grandparent’s middle class status that buffered us from poverty. My mother and I spoke often about things like why don’t men like my father pay child support? Why do women earn less than men? How can we protect mother earth?
As I grew up I wanted to be part of the solutions, and so today I’m working as a researcher and commentator at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-profit, non-partisan research institute. We do research used by activists to push for positive change. It is through this work that I am active in Make Poverty History Manitoba.
Make Poverty History Manitoba is a “big tent” coalition. The diverse membership of MPHM reflects the diverse populations most vulnerable to poverty. We recognize that these populations include Indigenous people, women, children, people with disabilities, GLBTQ2 and recent immigrants. Make Poverty History Canada started as a movement to end global poverty, and our local group stands in solidarity with this important work.
Make Poverty History Manitoba’s goal is a Winnipeg and Manitoba without poverty and we do this via influencing public policy. All of us have a responsibility to end poverty. This should include participation & cooperation of citizens, the private sector, the non-governmental sector and government. Make Poverty History focuses on government as they have the greatest power to make the change that will end poverty, inequality and social exclusion. Governments are the only body that is accountable to citizens.
Many people have been active in Make Poverty History – some of you are here today! This coalition lobbied for the first poverty reduction legislation in the province: Manitoba’s Poverty Reduction and Social Inclusion Act introduced in 2011, the first poverty reduction plan for the province and the introduction of Rent Assist, a shelter benefit that puts $40 million more annually in the pockets of low income people. These are some of our successes but there are many many challenges.
I know this is a very well-educated congregation, and I anticipate you are aware of many of the complex challenges faced by people struggling to make ends meet. It is getting harder, we hear this from people with lived experience.
Hunger Free Manitoba documented two people’s stories[i]. Laura is a 61 year old woman who grew up in Winnipeg’s North end. From the age of 17 she worked in a number of factories on an assembly line. Later, she worked for the post office. Because of a slipped disc and twisted pelvis, Laura is unable to work. Her husband, Lyle, used to work selling the Winnipeg Free Press but the paper stand closed down. With only a Grade 6 education, Lyle has been unable to find a stable job. Social assistance rates are frozen and falling way behind.
I’m sure you’re heard some tough stories like youth aging out of child welfare without a place to stay, any food to eat or support to stay in school. Or homeless people taking meth just to stay up all night to stay safer only get addicted. Or the young man leaving jail, with no prospects but to return to the life that landed him there in the first place. Poverty is a trap, and we must help people escape it.
Some people think the poor will always be with us. I say the vulnerable will always be with us, but our moral progress should be measured by how well our society includes vulnerable people & supports their human dignity.
Today I am here to ask for your help. Civil society groups like Make Poverty History continue to pressure governments to act in the face of rising inequality and the climate crisis. We need the help of spiritual communities to give the moral imperative to act as today we are failing low income people as a society.
My talk today has four parts – I’m going to start by talking about the human right to dignity; 2) discuss the root causes of income inequality; 3) the need for the spiritual community to act as a moral compass in our City and Province and I will end with our ask for your support to call on the City of Winnipeg to lead and create Winnipeg Without Poverty.
Because in a society as wealthy as ours it is unacceptable that 1,500 people are homeless on any given night in Winnipeg. There are 100 MORE homeless the last street census two years ago (Winnipeg Street Census 2018).
The life expectancy between the richest and poorest neighbourhoods in Winnipeg is a difference of 15 years – 15 years mainly lost due to chronic diseases created by lack of healthy food, constrained lifestyle choices and stress[v].
35% of Indigenous Winnipeggers live in poverty, compared to 14% of non-Indigenous Winnipeggers[vi]. Addressing poverty is an act of reconciliation.
This past fall the Mayor said he is committed to Winnipeg’s potential to be an international leader for human rights[vii]. Promoting human rights means end discrimination and violence in all its forms. Promoting human rights also means human dignity and equity by making sure basic needs are met.
We must rise to this vision of a Human Rights City. Human rights should be enacted on every street and in each home in Winnipeg.
- Social and Economic Human Rights
And I recognize many want to do this. Winnipeg is a very generous city – we are #1 in terms of charitable donations and volunteerism.
But unfortunately there are disconnections between our ideals and reality. In the description for this talk I ask “How is it that the home of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is also home to high and rising poverty?”
To prepare for this talk I recently visited the Museum for Human Rights. If you’re of limited means and thinking of going, it is free on the first Wednesday night of the month, except you do have to pay to see the Nelson Mandela exhibit unfortunately.
I went to see the Nelson Mandela exhibit on the movement to end apartheid in South Africa, first through non-violence, then through strategic disruptions of the state apparatus that violently segregated people based on their colour of their skin. For this, the state convicted Mandela to 27 years in prison, where he continued to organize. An international movement helped end apartheid and his imprisonment. Mandela said that ending apartheid was the first step: more work is to be done before South Africans can be truly equal. This means addressing social and economic rights – and poverty.
Mandela said: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
Social and economic rights are human rights. Social and economic rights are the basics: food, shelter, water, transportation, health care, education, adequate standard of living, the right to employment according to the United Nationshttps://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx.. These rights are recognized in many international human rights documents signed by governments around the world[viii].
But we fall short far short of this today. Why?
- Income inequality and a 3 letter word – tax
In a society with great wealth, the problem is not one of poverty. The problem is income inequality & distribution of wealth. Research from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives finds that those at the lowest 10% earn less today than they did in the 1970s[ix]. Of the lowest 10%, market income fell 11% but the wealthiest 10% earn 44% more today[x].
Yale philosopher Thomas Pogge argues that progress against global poverty should be measured by our capacity to end it[xi]. There is more wealth than ever today, but the lowest income people are falling further and further behind. If progress is measured by our resources to end poverty, we are doing worse now than at any time in human history. Basic needs are a basic right, and our governments have the potential to ensure decent housing, good food, mental health and health care etc, except governments are not resourced to do so.
Why is this the case? Pogge explains those with access to power influence public policy, and policy changes over the last several decades have favoured the wealthy. People struggling with poverty are struggling to get by day to day, just to survive and have very little political power. Business influence on public policy is regulatory capture: corporations pay money to influence how policy is made and in exchange they get a return.
For example here in Canada corporations have lobbied for lower taxes. The corporate tax rate was 36% in the 1980s; today it is 17%[xii]. And these tax cuts have not yielded promised job growth – that’s because a business with a tax cut can do several things – it can keep it as profit, returned to shareholders, or invest in the business[xiii]. In fact Canadian Corporations are sitting on $250 billion publicly reported in tax havens[xiv]. In my view, this is a form of greed.
All religions promote sharing with those who are without, to not be seduced by greed. Poverty is non-existent in Indigenous pre-contact communities as they shared what they had with everyone.
Today the most efficient and efficient way to do this is via redistribution of wealth through taxation. Taxes are the cost of living together in a society. Our taxes do a lot for us. A study by our office called “Canada’s Quiet Bargain” found Canadians get $41,000 on average annual benefit from public services – things like health care, roads, safe food, fire and ambulance and much more[xv]. Targeted resources are needed to support low income people out of poverty.
Lynda Trono, member of Make Poverty History and Minister at Young United writes “We are acutely aware of the fact that Manitoba’s most vulnerable people have to rely on charity in order to survive. Without donations to food banks many would starve. The question is why do we have food banks at all? Instead of all Manitobans supporting those in need through fair taxes, we let those who have compassion for the less fortunate prop up this under-funded system with generous giving. In a wealthy society like Manitoba we have the resources to transfer sufficient revenue to those in need so they may live a life in dignity and have basic needs met[xvi]”.
The stakes are high if we fail. We are seeing the rise of populist movements around the world. The Yellow Vest Movement in France started as a protest against rising fuel prices, but it is also against the stagnant standard of living for the working class, unfair taxes on the wealthy and government beholden to big business. The Yellow Vest Movement has been twisted in Canada as anti-immigrant, anti-carbon tax and pro pipeline. Regardless what forms it takes, the malaise of the working class in the face of rising prices is related to rising income inequality – when the wealthy get ahead at the cost of a growing number of people, the dangerous seeds of right wing populism are sown.
- In the face of these challenges we need the spiritual community now more than ever.
Spiritual communities have long fought for justice and fairness. Hunger Free Manitoba is a group of eight faith groups who came together to call on the province to increase the social assistance food allowance.
Unfortunately the provincial government, the level of government responsible for social assistance, has not acted. People on social assistance still only get $4/ day for food. A single person on assistance gets only $195/ month to meet all basic needs and it is shrinking due to inflation[xvii]. Food costs are rising faster than inflation, particularly fruits and vegetables so important to basic nutrition and health.
The federal government gave some relief to families with children through the Canada Child Benefit, but parents with children on assistance are still below the poverty line. And those deemed by our judgmental society as the “undeserving poor” – single individuals are the lowest below the poverty line. Welfare rates are so low that single individuals are 47% BELOW the poverty line, those on disability are 33% below[xviii].
Make Poverty History Manitoba has a provincial campaign similar to a basic income to bring all of those on social assistance to Canada’s official poverty line – and using a comprehensive approach, provide training, and good jobs along with social housing, child care, mental health and additions supports, a $15 minimum wage and more to remove the trap of poverty[xix]. Relative to the GDP of Manitoba, this would only cost a small amount.
Poverty is much costlier in terms of lost human potential, lives lost and downstream costs. A study of Saskatchewan found poverty costs $3.8 billion annually in emergency services, incarceration, lost contributions to GDP and taxes and more[xx]. Meth is preying on the poverty crisis in Winnipeg, worsening its effects[xxi]. The province has no meth strategy and is in violation of the poverty reduction legislation that calls for an updated strategy every five years – the province is two years overdue on their poverty strategy & currently has no strategy. We continue to call them to account on this, and I encourage you to as well.
- The City of Winnipeg and the Ask
For those of you who follow various social issues, you’ll know that different levels of government are responsible for different areas.
This past August Make Poverty History Manitoba sent a letter to 381 faith groups in Winnipeg asking for support for the community-based report entitled Winnipeg Without Poverty: Calling on the City to Lead. The letter asks faith groups to be the moral compass for Winnipeg and lead the charge on this important work.
Winnipeg Without Poverty is a report based on the latest research and grounded in the knowledge of people with lived experience of poverty, and community groups who work with people every day. There are eight focus areas for the City of Winnipeg:
- Income and employment
- Urban Sprawl
- Community and civic engagement and
- Policing and safety
City governments have an important role to play in reducing poverty. To date, the City has done this in an ad-hoc way – a free swim program here – a youth program there – but we are calling on the City to have a comprehensive strategy to actually bring down poverty rates.
Take transit for example. Last Spring the province cut the 50/50 funding agreement to the City of Winnipeg, resulting in a $10 million dollar cut to operational funding for transit. City council responded by increasing transit fares by 25 cents and also proposing to cut transit routes. Due to community pressure, the route cuts didn’t happen but the transit rate hike was implemented, increasing bus fares from $2.70 to $2.95.
Our research shows some people can’t take the bus at this cost, they walk long distances to doctor’s appointments or stay isolated at home. If you’re on social assistance, you don’t get a bus pass automatically, it’s not considered essential. Our office published a report calling for transportation equity in the City’s new Transportation Master plan. Transit became a #1 issue during the civic election. For good reason – how many here have been a sardine in a Winnipeg bus recently?
Winnipeg lags way behind other comparable cities for transit spending. According to the 2018 State of the inner City Report on transporation equity, Edmonton spends $334, Ottawa $386 per person and Winnipeg a measly $207 per person. The City is looking into a low income bus pass, which is a positive step, but the devil is in the details. A pass at 50% of the current bus pass is still $50/ month, out of reach for many low income people. Calgary’s low income pass is a sliding scale – from $5/ month to $50 and a best practice approach.
Make Poverty History pushed hard to get poverty on the agenda during the civic election last fall with good results: candidates were talking about the City’s role in addressing poverty.
Today Winnipeg is on the cusp of something exciting with a new and more diverse City Council interested in doing some good. We must to call on them to do so.
During the election the Mayor agreed to Make Poverty History Manitoba’s main ask: to make a city poverty reduction plan. Currently the City is taking a first steop in this direction by doing an inventory of existing programs.
But we also have to be cautious, the Mayor campaigned on a 2.33% tax increase[xxii], all targeted to infrastructure – no operating funding increases at all, even for inflation, which is effectively a cut. But more resources are needed, for example to keep inner city recreation centres open all weekend and in the evenings, and in some instances open for 24 hours so at risk youth have a safe place to go. Plus there’s so much more the City could do with a bit more money.
The City cannot do this alone, they need the other levels of government. The province’s cuts to transit are just one example of short-sighted policy towards low income and working class people, and in the face of the climate crisis.
Here are our asks of you:
We hope faith communities will consider endorsing Winnipeg Without Poverty: Calling on the City to Lead. This document has been endorsed by over 100 organizations already, and adding more support would boost our efforts.
I urge you to consider signing our petition, which is with members of the social justice committee. Our annual fundraiser is March 14th at the West End Cultural Centre at 8 pm with headliner Sweet Alibi and Emcee Michael Champagne. I hope you can join us. Tickets available here.
And I hope you phone or email your city councilor, the Mayor, MLA and Premier calling on them to act to end poverty and support Make Poverty History Manitoba’s calls to action.
In conclusion, Winnipeg can walk the walk of social and economic human rights if we look deeper at the root causes of rising income inequality – how money is distributed and provide needed public services low income people rely on like affordable, quality transit.
The challenges we face in this are huge. Spiritual communities are moral guides. Together we can make a difference, by speaking up and holding political decision makers to account. Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity as Mandela said, it is the promotion of basic human dignity. May we all live these values in the hometown of human rights.
Thank you for listening and supporting our efforts.
[viii] For more info on social and economic rights & the United Nations please see: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Publications/FactSheet33en.pdf