Poverty needs a plan

Better late than never. While seven of Canada’s provinces and all three territories have already completed or begun an interdisciplinary plan to tackle poverty in their borders, Alberta is just beginning to gather consensus to ask permission to present a proposal to develop such a plan — a process hopefully to begin next year.

Better late than never. While seven of Canada’s provinces and all three territories have already completed or begun an interdisciplinary plan to tackle poverty in their borders, Alberta is just beginning to gather consensus to ask permission to present a proposal to develop such a plan — a process hopefully to begin next year.

There’s plenty of room for cynicism, considering whether there’s any real interest in studying poverty in Canada’s most polarized economy. Focusing on wealth is so much more engaging.

But there are benefits to arriving late. We have the efforts of 10 other governments to mine for insight while we conduct our investigation into how many millions of tax dollars can be saved every year by paying attention to the root cause of so much strain on our health, welfare, policing, justice and education safety nets.

One such study is just now being tabulated: a project begun in Manitoba about 40 years ago, to see if a guaranteed annual income could really be cost effective, over time. Early reports by University of Manitoba professor Evelyn Forget suggest it might.

Think we can afford to ignore homelessness, for instance?

In Calgary, the average annual bill for each and every homeless person in the city is estimated at $134,000. That includes running emergency shelters, plus costs for emergency hospital visits, law enforcement and social services. It’s four times the average $34,000 cost of putting a person into supported, subsidized housing designed to keep poor people out of hospital, out of jail and moving toward steady employment.

These are numbers that Joe Ceci, provincial poverty reduction co-ordinator for the Alberta Inter-City Forum on Social Policy, understands well. A social worker by training, he has been a Calgary alderman for 15 years and has wrestled with them in every city budget.

He wants Alberta’s municipalities to join him in lobbying the government for the authority (and funding) to create a planned provincial response to poverty, and ultimately to reduce its financial and social costs.

A couple of items to consider. Right now, 8.5 per cent of Alberta residents are considered low income. The national average was pegged at 9.4 per cent in the 2008 census, and is estimated (and due for correction in the current census) at 12.5 per cent.

But because of Alberta’s oil-based economy, the gap between rich and poor is widening faster than the rest of the country. Incomes are rising, but they are rising far faster for everyone whose household income is $80,000 or more (median household income in Alberta for the 2008 census was just over $85,00). For families earning $40,000 a year or less, incomes have just barely kept pace with our past decade of low inflation. The poorest group fell behind.

Supported housing programs are one good alternative for study.

Indexing social supports, like welfare and AISH, to inflation would be another.

Ted Clark, CEO of the Toronto-Dominion Bank, suggests the lower income brackets are overtaxed and more burden should be picked up by the growing group earning $90,000-plus.

Much is being made of the demographic bulge in our economy that will need costly health care in the next couple of decades. Little is being made of the resources being spent taking care of the poor — without treating the reasons for their poverty.

How much of those resources could be better spent if we had a better plan? How many millions would be left over for improved geriatric care if desperately poor people weren’t being ferried to emergency wards by police, over and over again?

We’re late getting into this but that might help us raise the bar for all.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.