The homeless are visible in big cities and small communities across Canada. Soup kitchens and shelters are busy, and some Canadians have more than one low-paying job and struggle to pay bills and buy the things they need for daily living.
There is poverty in Canada, but the numbers of people in the low-income bracket have fallen fairly dramatically in the last 10 years. And what once was a mainstay election issue is not leading the way as the Oct. 14 vote approaches. The environment, health care and, of course, the economy are the big three issues hoarding most of the media's attention.
No need to worry about poverty, some might say, as the Canadian economy appears to be doing well compared to other developed nations, with small GDP growth posted recently and more expected, despite recent stock market ups and downs. The unemployment rate is hovering around six per cent, its lowest level in 30 years.
A downward trend
When Statistics Canada numbers regarding low income are considered, a clear downward trend in poverty numbers is apparent. A number of studies have highlighted pockets of poverty that exist in urban areas and in smaller communities, but Statistics Canada itself provides a countrywide view.
The agency has a low-income cutoff it uses to get its numbers. There is some debate about Statistics Canada's definition, and what it means and at what level the low-income cutoff should be, but the numbers clearly supply a detailed look at trends over the years.
Those numbers show that Canadians in the low income bracket dropped from 15.7 per cent, or 4.5 million people, in 1996 to 10.5 per cent, or 3.3 million people, in 2006.
Within that bracket, the composition has changed as well. Unattached men accounted for 35.6 per cent of those classified as low income in 1996, but that number had dropped to 28.8 per cent 10 years later. Among unattached women, a figure that largely referred to elderly widows, the number dropped from 38.7 per cent to 29.6 per cent, probably because of changes to survivors' pension benefits.
Low-income rates with families of two or more adults dropped from 12.1 per cent in 1996 to seven per cent in 2006.
However, one cannot consider those figures without looking at what has happened to income numbers and how these have affected Canadians hovering around the low-income line.
"Median earnings of Canadians employed on a full-time basis for a full year changed little during the past quarter century, edging up from $41,348 in 1980 to $41,401 in 2005," according to recent Statistics Canada findings (based on 2006 census figures and constant 2005 dollars adjusted for inflation).
"Earnings of full-time full year earners rose for those at the top of the earnings
'Earnings of full-time full year earners rose for those at the top of the earnings distribution, stagnated for those in the middle and declined for those at the bottom.' —Statistics Canada
distribution, stagnated for those in the middle and declined for those at the bottom."
In fact, the median income for the low-income group dropped from $19,367 in 1980 to $15,375 in 2005, which may keep them from the lowest income bracket, but only just. Those affected the most? Young people and recent immigrants.
There are fewer people in Canada classified as low income, but one big question remains, at what level is poverty considered eradicated, or even defeated and nearly on its way out?
Broadly accepted economic theory suggests that full employment in a country occurs when the unemployment rate is somewhere between two per cent and seven per cent.
But there are no similar widely acknowledged ranges for what constitutes the abolition of poverty.
What the parties are saying about poverty
Various governments have made efforts over the years to reduce tax burdens on low-income earners, boosted rebates in the income tax system and moved to help with child care and other issues that aid those at or below the so-called poverty line.
On their election sites, the parties don't appear to be making a huge issue of poverty at this point in the campaign.
On the NDP site, the party talks about increasing the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour, and asserts that the party "tabled bills to fix the Employment Insurance system so more unemployed Canadians can qualify for the benefits they need and deserve" and "exposed price gouging that hurts low-income families, unfair ATM fees and credit card rates; gas pump gouging; abusive cellphone charges; and soaring prescription prices."
The NDP say they "successfully pressured [Stephen] Harper to abandon cuts to homelessness and housing initiatives."
As for the Conservatives, they list a number of key issues on their website: sovereignty, leadership, environment, health care, lower taxes, child care, tackling crime and accountability.
There are promises to stay "the course of lower taxes, prudent leadership" and talk about the 2007 reduction of the lowest personal income tax rate to 15 per cent from 15.5 per cent, which was proposed by the Liberals in late 2005 during a fiscal update.
The Conservatives say on their website that they have "increased the amount all Canadians can earn without paying federal income tax to $9,600 in 2007 and 2008 and to $10,100 in 2009." As well, they tout the cuts to the GST and "created the new Working Income Tax Benefit to help 1.2 million people over the 'welfare wall.' "
They also announced on the campaign trail that they would extend $2 billion in funding for homelessness programs that were set to end in March.
The 30-50 promise
Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion is promising to cut poverty by 30 per cent and child poverty by 50 per cent.
Dion has said a Liberal government would "significantly increase" income support for those with lower income. As part of their Green Shift plan, Liberals plan to reduce personal income taxes, and after four years, provide a refundable child tax credit worth $350 per child.
The Liberal leader has spoken about poverty during his election stops, including in Saint John, N.B., where he touted his "30-50 plan." As well, in a recent news release about child care, the Liberals talk about providing up to $1,225 per year to "Canada's poorest families" through a guaranteed family supplement.
Using their Green Shift plan, the Liberals also say that by the fourth year of their plan they will lower the tax rate in the lowest bracket by 1.5 percentage points.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May has addressed the issue of poverty during the campaign, and it is addressed in the party's platform.
"We want to wipe poverty out for good, the Green party website quoted May as saying during a stop at an Ottawa mission. "Most Canadians find it unacceptable that in a wealthy country like Canada, 15 per cent of Canadian children still endure the hardships associated with inadequate income. No child should be faced with inadequate nutrition or go to bed hungry."
The party said it would eliminate income tax for those earning $20,000 or less and would also allow income splitting, which some have argued better serves those in the higher income brackets.
The Bloc Québécois's plans to fight poverty include increasing funding for social housing and increasing employment insurance payments. The Bloc also suggests using money from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation to finance affordable housing.