N.B. makes no headway on poverty by treating symptoms, says economist
Poverty could be eliminated for $1B annually, says Herb Emery
Poverty in New Brunswick could be basically eliminated for about $1 billion, says the Vaughan chair in regional economics at the University of New Brunswick.
Herb Emery's comments come amid calls for a more effective solution than the ever-larger reliance on food banks and homeless shelters to help those who can't afford necessities such as food and housing.
"It's appalling just how much we're getting efficient at treating the symptoms of poverty rather than taking any of the most basic steps to addressing the causes," he said.
Emery is one of the people working to create a guaranteed basic income pilot scheme, similar to what Canadian seniors have through the Guaranteed Income Supplement program, which provides a top-up to a minimum income of around $20,000 a year.
"Using this approach, we dropped elderly poverty from one of the highest in the developed world to one of the lowest," he said, and in a sample group, food insecurity was cut in half.
Emery would like to see something similar done for families in younger demographics.
$1B could lower poverty rate to 1.5 per cent
"If you gave people a transfer 85 per cent of the market-basket measure threshold for poverty, it would cost about $1 billion extra spending in New Brunswick, and you could take the poverty rate down to about 1.5 per cent from its current 12 per cent," he said.
"To me, that seems like it's not a moonshot, and it's a real puzzle why it's so hard to get Canadians to want to address poverty."
One reason for the lack of progress, said UNB political scientist Donald Wright, is that people living in poverty don't have the time or resources to organize a protest movement.
That's generally how big political changes are accomplished, he said.
Poverty is an issue as old as time, said Wright. Governments introduced social programs in the 20th century, he said, but in the last 40 years, the welfare state has "withered" and "contracted."
He said it's "madness" that real wages went further in the 1970s than they do today.
"We have a real problem," Wright said. "People are struggling to meet the necessities of life.
"It is grotesque the levels of poverty we tolerate in our society — a society as rich as ours."
There is a lot of wealth in Canada, said Wright, but it's poorly distributed and the gap between rich and poor has stretched.
Food banks may impede solution
Food banks, ironically, may also be impeding a long-term solution, said Valerie Tarasuk, a professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences in the Temerty Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto. She's also the lead investigator in a research program on food insecurity called Proof.
Food banks began operating in Canada in the early 1980s, during a recession, and were supposed to be a temporary measure, she said.
Instead, they've become a permanent fixture and serve to subsidize social assistance programs, allowing them to become "woefully inadequate."
"How many will we be able to feed for how long?" posed Tarasuk.
The intentions may be good, she said, but it's time to try something else. She, too, supports the idea of a guaranteed basic income, whether or not a person is in the workforce.
It's a policy that has paid off for seniors in food security, physical health and mental health because people have less stress in their lives, said Tarasuk.
One of the most popular arguments against a guaranteed income program is that it would discourage people from working.
But Emery said modelling suggests that would not happen to any great extent.
Most of the "working poor" are under 30, he said, and many live with their parents, so they wouldn't be entitled to payments if the program is family based.
Emery said his "cynical opinion" is that voters just don't care enough about helping those in dire straits. He said the middle class agenda in Canada has become "repugnant."
It would probably require the elimination of some tax credits to middle income groups to finance a basic income program, he said, and eliminating poverty isn't seen as worthwhile if it costs the middle class anything at all.
Some cities are starting to reach a breaking point, said Emery.
"When you don't address these problems upstream, you get all the symptoms downstream, which start to hit the homeowners, which start to hit businesses and they start to demand a solution," he said.
"These problems of poverty are addressable and solvable, but it may not be with solutions that we've been using for 400 years that haven't worked."
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