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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 3, Nov./Dec. 2006

BC's growing poverty crisis

Canada’s working poor
When working is not enough to escape poverty

According to a report published this past August by Human Resources and Social Development Canada, there are over 1.5 million Canadians affected by working poverty and one-third of them are children under the age of 18. The authors estimate that there are about 653,300 working poor persons in Canada. The definition of working poor is a worker between 18 and 64 years old, not a full-time student, who worked at least 910 hours in one year.

Using the most recently available census data, the authors confront a number of myths and popular misconceptions about the working poor. One of those myths is that if you work hard, you won’t be poor. According to the study, working poor are as "attached" to the labour market as non-poor workers, working on average, as many hours as the latter group (about 2,000 per year).

And the working poor aren’t always the same people. Over a six-year period, one in 10 working-age adults will experience at least one year of working poverty.

The working poor have less favourable employment conditions: they are more likely to have atypical work schedules, are less likely to have access to dental and health-care plans, life or disability insurance, a pension plan, or to be unionized.

The study found that you were more likely to be among the working poor if you lived in BC, were the sole breadwinner with dependant children, if you were self-employed, and if you were less well educated.

Working poverty rates were highest among those with less than high school education (9.1%), a rate that dropped by a significant three percentage points to 6.1% with high school, post-secondary (4.8%) and university (3.2%) educated workers had the lowest working poverty rates.

British Columbia had the highest rate of working poor in the country at 10.2% and Vancouver (9.5%) had the highest percentage of working poor compared to five other major city centres: Toronto (5.3%), Calgary (5.2%), Ottawa/Gatineau (3.7%), Montreal (3.4%), and Winnipeg (3.2%).

The most recent Statistics Canada low income cut-off data for a single person in a large urban area is $17,219 compared to $11,264 for someone living in a rural area. For a family of four, these cut-off levels are $32,556 and $21,296 respectively.

– Colleen Hawkey, chawkey@bctf.ca

Source: Human Resources and Social Development Canada, (August 2006). When Working is Not Enough to Escape Poverty: An analysis of Canada’s working poor, working paper. SP-630-06-06E

Poverty comes to school every day

by Stacey Kemp

In 2003, BC had the highest poverty rate in Canada with 23.9%. That is appalling when you think that it’s basically one in four children. In BC that is over 200,000 children, approximately the same as the population of Cranbrook, Nanaimo, and Kelowna combined. The national poverty rate was 17.6%.

Most families that are living in poverty have some employment at minimum wage jobs with no benefits so they make $8.50 an hour. After paying for daycare and rent, which is over $1,000 a month, there is no money left.

The other big concern is the child labour laws. It used to be that if you were under 15 you had to have permission from the school and your parents to work. In 2003, new legislation was passed that allows 12-year-olds to work 35 hours a week if they are not going to school. If the child is attending school, the school no longer has to give permission, they only need permission from one parent. There are now 12-year-olds who are working to help their families.

Living in poverty affects learning. It is wonderful that schools have free-lunch programs but imagine coming to school without having eaten in 18 hours. That’s the reality for a lot of these children. Because we do academics in the morning, we need to advocate for a breakfast program. I’ve tried in some schools but with limited success.

So what can teachers do? The biggest thing is understanding that these kids are not living in poverty by choice. They were born into it and they don’t have any options—understanding is very important. We also need to look at understanding the relationships and the children’s method of speaking. Rudy Payne’s book on poverty was about storytelling and how children growing up in poverty will typically start at the end of the story and tell you what the final result is and then back track. When kids are in the office being disciplined, the teacher and principal are often only seeing the final results and the children are not given the chance to go back and explain why it happened.

In closing, I want to say that relationships are key and teachers need to build on those relationships so that kids will stay in school and be more successful.

Stacey Kemp is an elementary counsellor in the Okanagan-Skaha school district and a member of the BCTF End Poverty Action Group.

Why are there so many poor among us?

by Jean Swanson

The latest stats from Stats Canada figures on the distribution of wealth are from 2001.

  • The poorest 10% has no wealth—they are in debt.
  • The second poorest has virtually no wealth. That’s 20% that has no wealth.
  • The third 10% poorest has 1% of the wealth.
  • The fourth poorest has 2%.
  • The fifth poorest 10% has 3%.
  • The sixth 10% still only has 5%.
  • The seventh poorest has 8%.
  • The eighth poorest 10% has 11% of the wealth.
  • The second richest 10% has 17% of the wealth.
  • The richest 10% has 53% of the wealth.

If wealth were distributed equally, they’d all have 10%. The poorest half has only 6% of the wealth, and the other half has 94%. A literacy expert, Carmen St. John Hunter said, "Poverty is the underlying cause of illiteracy. Without any proven will to break the chain of poverty, no government has been able to make significant progress toward universal literacy."

There is a fascinating book by Richard Wilkinson who is an epidemiologist. He quotes research studies that show income inequality in developed countries is bad for just about everything. Countries with great inequalities will have more racism, more sexism, a worse performance in school, more drug abuse, more sickness, shorter lives, more despair, more alienation, more street crime, and even lower voter turnout.

It is not so much because the poorest can’t afford decent nutrition, or that the poorer people live in polluted areas, or they don’t have the proper housing, it is because it is so stressful to continuously fight against the stigma of being seen as less than other people. According to Wilkinson, facing discrimination caused by poverty and racism actually unleashes hormones and causes immune system responses that cause poor people in unequal countries to get sick more and die sooner.

Here in BC, our economy is booming, but we have horrible poverty stats. According to the National Council of Welfare, BC has the highest rate of child poverty of all the provinces. The Federal government’s market-basket study says that 30% of BC children are living in poverty.

The real solution is to end poverty and reduce inequality in our province and our country. We are capable of doing this if we make our politicians develop a political will to do it.

In 2002, some single parents on welfare in BC lost as much as $400 a month through welfare changes. If a father pays maintenance to a mother on welfare, 100% of it is deducted from her cheque. If the mother tries to work to supplement the welfare, 100% of her earnings are deducted from the welfare cheque, and if she doesn’t declare it, she’s a criminal. The welfare rate for a single parent and the child is $968 a month plus there is a child-tax benefit of $123. The dieticians of Canada and the BC regions say that if a family on welfare spends a reasonable amount on rent and other necessities of life, they will have virtually nothing left for a nutritious diet. A person working full-time at the minimum wage gets about $16,000 before deductions and childcare, so they are not much better off.

Right now it is very important to be putting as much pressure as possible on the provincial government for welfare and minimum wage increases, and to build affordable housing. I have never seen so much momentum for these changes, not from the government but it is coming from every where else because the situation is so bad. For example, the National Council of Welfare puts out reports every year about how bad welfare payments are but this year the media covered it. The Vancouver Sun has had two editorials calling for higher welfare rates. The North Shore News has called for the same thing.

Vancouver, Victoria, Kelowna, Maple Ridge, and Kamloops have passed resolutions calling for welfare-rate increases, and I think Burnaby is going to do that soon.

I’m now with a group called "Raise the Rates" and we formed in January 2006. We want four things:

  • welfare rates increased by 50%
  • an end to the barriers that are keeping people in need off of welfare
  • everyone on welfare to be allowed to keep the first $500 they earn
  • minimum wage of at least $10 an hour and an end to the training wage.

We’ve got the posters, we’ve got leaflets that say: Could you live on $6 a day? So far our members from the Anglican church have sent this material to over 100 Anglican churches and parishes in the Lower Mainland, and they want more. The Labour Council has endorsed our demands and is helping us get the posters printed. The BC Nurses’ Union gave us $5,000. The NDP is beginning to wake up on this issue although they need to do a lot more on it.

You could join and support Raise the Rates. Teachers can let the government and the opposition know that they want higher welfare rates, higher wages, and more affordable housing. We do have a $3 billion surplus so there is no excuse for not doing that, no excuse whatsoever.

Newfoundland, Quebec, and Ireland have recently adopted anti-poverty strategies. In Ireland, which has the oldest anti-poverty strategy, poverty has been reduced from 15% to 5%. By ending taxation for low-wage earners, increasing welfare, providing more money for training, and transportation and heat.

I’m hoping that the BCTF can continue to step up the pressure on government to even out some of these obscene wealth stats and help all children have an equal chance to learn and thrive.

Jean Swanson is an antipoverty activist and helped form Raise the Rates. www.raisetherates.org

We can afford to end poverty

by Seth Klein

You can sense the momentum building to address poverty in our communities. Mark Lee, the economist from our office, and I went to present an anti-poverty plan for the province to the provincial Finance Committee. The Surrey Chamber of Commerce gave a presentation, most of which I disagreed with, but interestingly on this issue, and in light of the upcoming Olympics, they were very clear. We’ve got to deal with homelessness before the Olympics. I gather from one of the members of the Finance Committee that this is the single message they have heard more than any other as they have travelled the province. So the momentum is building.

For those of you who are teachers in the classroom, you may find yourselves in these debates sometimes with your co-workers, friends, and family. I just want to equip you with some facts and then some further solutions so you can do that good work.

Whenever you are talking about poverty and welfare rates, you are confronting three dominant myths:

  1. Welfare is more generous than it is.
  2. Welfare is easier to get than it is.
  3. Poverty is inevitable, it will always be with us.

To speak to the last of those first. It’s not true, there is nothing that is inevitable about it. To paraphrase the organization that Jean Swanson helped found some years ago, it is legislated in many ways. It is the result of bad policies, and bad policy choices. Conversely, there is a great quote from Nelson Mandela, "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be eradicated by the actions of human beings."

People need to know that those jurisdictions that decide they are going to do something—do, and within a remarkably short period of time, they can make huge dents in prevailing poverty rates. Ireland is one such example.

BC and Newfoundland consistently rank as having the worst poverty rates in the country. Whenever you draw this to the attention of the BC government, they respond the same way. Oh the stats are old, the economy is picking up, we don’t need to worry about it and as we work, there will be a strong economy. The Conservative government in Newfoundland, in the face of this same statistic, responds completely differently. Their response is, we are aware of these statistics, and they are unacceptable.

The main policy goal in BC in the last few years has been welfare caseload reduction. The goal of Newfoundland is poverty reduction. These are very different goals. Welfare caseload reduction is neither good nor bad. It depends on why it is happening and it depends on what is happening to those who leave.

In the same way that our premier is always going on about the Five Great Goals, you can go to the homepage of the Newfoundland government and download their detailed book of an anti-poverty plan. It is not just a plan for the ministry responsible for welfare. It is an over-arching goal of government across ministries, with targets, timelines, performance measures, and a minister responsible. All kinds of people’s jobs and duties now hinge on their ability to meet these goals and to take a province over a 10-year period from having one of the worst poverty rates to one of the best.

If you just asked people, Do you think we should increase welfare rates? I suspect it would be split down the middle. But what we found when you tell them what people actually get on welfare and then ask them, 74% say yes.

A lot of rules have made welfare much harder to access, and we’ve written a whole paper on this called, "Denied assistance—Closing the front door on welfare in BC." A lot of those changes are unknown to people. When you tell them about it, they do not like what they hear. It does not sit well with them. It is an information gap, not a values gap.

British Columbia not only has the highest child poverty rates in the country, it has the highest poverty rate overall, the highest childhood poverty rates, the highest rates for single-mother families, but has also been operating in defiance of the national trends. The situation in this decade has been improving nationally, yet between 2000 and 2004 has become dramatically worse in BC. For single-mother-led households, poverty rose 15.8 percentage points between the years 2000 and 2004. That is a huge increase in the poverty rate. What is happening relates to the policy changes that were introduced in 2002, because a lot of them ended up specifically targeting in effect single-mother households.

There was a straight cut in benefits in 2002, just under $50 a month, cuts to shelter allowance for families of three or more, a loss of the earnings exemptions, as much as $200 or more of income a month, and the loss of the family maintenance exemption, another $100 a month. Before 2002, single-parent households could combine work and welfare and other income in such a way that got them just above the poverty line, and after 2002, the rules didn’t allow them to do that any more.

It has become much more difficult to access social assistance in the first place. The government claims that welfare cases have gone down, a good news story that more people are leaving and they are leaving for work. But when we got the month-by-month freedom of information data that actually looked at how many people over this whole four-year period were going onto welfare and how many people were leaving, something interesting emerged. Turns out that there is no increase in the number of people leaving welfare. The decline in caseloads is entirely because of a reduction in the number of people getting on. It is about a massive tightening of the rules in different and subtle ways, an increase in the outright denials and the dramatic increase in what we call the discouraging factor of a system that has become so complicated and onerous to navigate that people simply walk away. There’s a direct correlation between that and the increase in homelessness that we all witness.

We went before the Finance Committee and we outlined our anti-poverty strategy and pointed out that in a province as rich as British Columbia, there’s no reason why we couldn’t do this.

We laid out a detailed anti-poverty strategy, which included:

  • raising welfare rates.
  • increasing welfare eligibility.
  • increasing minimum wages to $10, although that is a non-budget item.
  • dramatically increasing the stock of social housing.
  • changing some of the rules so that lower-income people have more access to post-secondary education and training.
  • increasing access to childcare.

In the first year of our plan, it would cost $2.3 billion. That’s a lot of money but we all know the surplus for the year just closed was $3 billion. The current year will again have a surplus between $2 and $3 billion. According to our projections, next year’s surplus is looking to be $4 billion until they make changes with February’s budget. So the money is there to do something dramatic and bold.

Seth Klein is BC director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. www.ccpa.com

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