A version of this commentary appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, Guelph Mercury and the Yorkton News Review
Surrounded as we are by the tunes and decorations of the holiday season, Industry Minister James Moore’s recent uncharitable comments about child poverty and hunger invoke inevitable comparisons to Charles Dickens’ famed miser Ebenezer Scrooge. One could easily imagine Scrooge haughtily asking his nephew, “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I think not.”
The spirit of Moore’s comments offend the many Canadians who do think that if their neighbour’s child goes hungry it ought to concern them, that our responsibility for each other goes beyond the walls of our own homes. The attitude behind such comments is far from admirable, and disappointing to hear voiced by any elected official. It’s a position far from the values of Canadians.
Perhaps more disturbing from the Federal Ministry of Industry, however, is the comment that poverty is not Ottawa’s problem.
Government at all levels should be concerned primarily with our well-being. The tens of thousands of chronic illnesses and early deaths, the human misery and indignity of poverty, should keep politicians up at night.
Even if this human cost is ignored, the financial burden on Canada should be more than enough to interest our federal representatives. Poverty in Canada — through increased costs of social services, decreased taxation revenue and decreased productivity — is estimated to cost approximately $80 billion dollars, a total of over $2000 per Canadian per year. This includes an increased health expenditure of approximately $8 billion, which represents a huge cost to public coffers, not to mention the impact on our quality of life.
How could this possibly be a problem that does not concern Ottawa?
Moore’s suggestion that the federal government’s only role is to ensure that the economy is strong enough to employ people out of poverty also falls flat. An annual waste of $80 billion impedes that effort, and should be enough to convince him to care.
Elimination of poverty requires more than a growing economy; it requires a dedicated plan. When more jobs are available, some people’s living conditions improve quickly. However, the accompanied increase in cost of living can send some families into deeper poverty than before, a rising tide that swamps the smaller craft. And that continued and deepening poverty costs us all dearly.
As most provinces have realized (all but BC and Saskatchewan have introduced comprehensive poverty reduction plans), poverty doesn’t just go away on its own. Those provinces that have dedicated resources and meaningful measures have seen that investment pay off in significantly fewer people living in poverty, and decreased costs as a result.
The story of a Christmas Carol is one of redemption, of eyes opened to injustice and a heart moved to kindness. It was encouraging to see Moore apologize quickly for his comments and recognition that such remarks impede the cause of fighting poverty. Apologies, however, can be hollow. As hollow as unanimous commitments from parliament that don’t result in change for the one in seven Canadian kids who continue to live in poverty. The sincerity of Moore’s apology will be known, not by its speed, but its fruit.
One commentator suggested a donation to the food bank would be a way for Moore to redeem himself in the wake of these comments. While that is always a fine act, we should hope to see a more upstream response from someone in a position such as Mr. Moore.
Rather than a token gift, it would be far more meaningful for him to use the influence Canadians have given him to try to create the conditions for less need of food banks, for fewer hungry children. This could include advocating within cabinet for an approach to poverty reduction that includes an affordable housing strategy, child care programs, better wages, and effective support for marginalized populations.
He could work with the provinces that have poverty reduction strategies to reinforce those efforts, and strive to convince those without such plans to create them. He could become a champion for the economic and human arguments for the elimination of poverty.
For now, all we have is an unguarded moment followed by a hasty apology. If Moore, and his caucus colleagues, can move from Scrooge’s “Bah, Humbug” to Tiny Tim’s “God Bless Us, Every One,” then his Ebenezer moment could be an inspiration and a benefit to all Canadians.
Ryan Meili is an advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca, a Saskatoon Family Doctor and the Director of Upstream, a new, national non-profit dedicated to improving health outcomes by addressing the social determinants of health.
Listen to our podcast:
Why Canadian doctors should be on the front lines of the anti-poverty struggle : an interview with Dr. Gary Bloch, Dr. Ryan Meili, Dr. John Millar and Dr. Paula Goering
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