4.12 Eliminating poverty

 “I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective − the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? 1967

The National Council of Welfare has estimated that over 15% of Canadians are living in poverty − about 4.9 million people. In a wealthy country such as Canada, this is unacceptable. Eliminating poverty while supporting healthy communities will pay for itself in reduced health care costs, as poverty is the single largest determinant of ill health. Eliminating poverty will pay for itself in reduced crime rates. Failure to eliminate poverty will cost our society far more than an effective program to make poverty history in Canada.

Of all of Canada’s social problems, child poverty is probably the most shameful. In 1989, the old-line political parties voted unanimously to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. Despite recent improvements in the rate of child poverty, far too many Canadian children still grow up in poverty. Child poverty rates are unacceptably high among new Canadians, Aboriginals, and single parent households headed by women. Canada now ranks a dismal 21st out of 29 ‘developed’ countries in terms of relative child poverty rates.

The reasons for persistent poverty are complex. Better food banks cannot bridge the growing disparity between wealthy and poor Canadians. Poverty is a systemic problem that arises from low minimum wages, a precarious job market, a shortage of social housing, reductions in EI benefits, and cuts in social programs.

We can eliminate child poverty in Canada. We must start by recommitting to a vision of Canada as a just society built around a progressive, fair, and compassionate social safety network. European countries (such as Denmark, Finland, and Norway) that have made a similar commitment have kept child poverty rates below 3.5%. Unlike the old-line parties, the Green Party believes reducing child poverty is more important than allowing our richest citizens to get richer. The Green Party believes reducing child poverty starts with a stronger commitment to guaranteeing that all families have the ability to provide for their children.

The Green Party of Canada believes it is time to re-visit a major policy initiative − the use of a negative income tax, or Guaranteed Livable Income (GLI) for all. The use of a GLI could eliminate poverty and allow social services to concentrate on problems of mental health and addiction. The essential plan is to provide a regular payment to every Canadian without regard to a needs test. The level of the payment will be regionally set at a level above poverty, but at a bare subsistence level to encourage additional income generation. No surveillance or follow-up is required.

Unlike the current provincial welfare and federal Employment Insurance (EI) schemes, additional income is not ‘clawed back’ at income levels below subsistence. The incentive for illegal, under-the table economies is vastly reduced. Additional income is to be declared until the wage-earner becomes a taxpayer. For higher-income Canadians, the amount of the GLI is merely taxed back in whole.

Through policy coherence, municipally, provincially and federally, significant savings can be realized, while simultaneously reversing the negatives of a shame-based system that perpetuates poverty. To be cost-effective, however, government will require time to negotiate a coherent program with the provinces/territories and other levels of government. Various ‘poverty-industry’ programs of welfare, disability pensions, seniors benefits, unemployment insurance, would all be collapsed within one simple single payment system, administered through taxes.

The Green Party believes it is time to advance bold ideas such as this. Nevertheless, it will take time for study, reflection, and support from all three levels of government. We are committed to opening dialogue on the idea, while pursuing short-term measures to make progress in the near term.

Green Party MPs will:

  • Remove taxes from the lowest income categories so that no taxes are paid by those below the poverty line (Canada’s Low Income Cut-off measure);

  • Allow income assistance recipients to keep 100% of the wages they earn up to the Low Income Cut-off level to encourage people to get back into the job market;

  • Offer people the mobility they need to find work, shelter, and other necessities through free transit passes for those on income assistance;

  • Extend maternity/paternity leave for new parents outside of EI to two years and one additional year for parents who pay into EI;

  • Increase the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors by 25%;

  • Top up the income support for single parents on welfare during the time they are attending school or job training programs.;

  • As a first step towards universal GLI, provide dividends to every Canadian from the carbon fee collected on GHG emissions. Through negotiations with each province, this modest income support payment will not be subject to claw-back;

  • Support the provision of stable, long-term financial support for persons with disabilities by means of a targeted GLI;

  • Ensure financial assistance for low-income spouses and relatives who provide end-of-life care at home for patients who would otherwise need to be hospitalized or in institutional long-term care;

  • Augment the government’s measurement of ‘progress’, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with a Genuine Progress Indicator, such as the Canadian Index of Well-being, that annually measures how well we are doing on quality of life indicators, including eliminating poverty (see Part 1: The Green Economy);

  • Develop a comprehensive plan to improve our social safety network so that it eliminates child poverty, modeling this plan on European countries’ programs that have the best track records in eliminating child poverty.