Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill-policed and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1770
Canadians have traditionally considered their nation to be among the most humane and caring on the planet. In contrast to their American neighbours to the south, they view public policies toward the provision of health care and social services and other supports to citizens as responsive, fair and equitable. These supports to citizens constitute what is known as the modern welfare state. Yet Canada has one of the highest poverty rates for individuals, families and children among modern industrialized nations. Using pre-tax low-income cutoffs (LICOs) as the measure- ment tool, the most recent Statistics Canada figures (2004) identified 15.5 percent of Canadians, 11.8 percent of fami- lies and 17.7 percent of Canadian children as living in the ”œstraitened conditions” associated with low income or " using international parlance " poverty. A striking 52.1 per- cent of children living within female-led families were so classified. This is the case despite the 1989 House of Commons all-party motion committing Canada to elimi- nating child poverty by the year 2000.
In reality, Canadian approaches to public policy in a wide range of spheres " including the prevention of poverty " are undeveloped as compared with those of most European nations. Our poverty rates are particular- ly problematic as poverty is the strongest determinant of individual and population health. Poverty is also the strongest determinant of a variety of other indicators of societal well-being or quality of life such as literacy, crime and safety, social cohesion and community soli- darity.
Yet there was little mention of Canada’s poverty rates during the recent election campaign. Indeed, there has been little policy action on poverty ever since the House of Commons’ 1989 pledge to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. The election of the Harper Conservative minority government raises the question: What can we expect from this parliament in regard to poverty reduction? But analysis of this issue first requires an answer to the question: Why should Canadians care about high rates of poverty? In this arti- cle the emphasis is on child poverty, which has seen greater public attention. However, it should be noted that poor children live in poor families. Hence child poverty in Canada is best understood as a reflection of family poverty in Canada.
Gà¸sta Esping-Andersen’s Why We Need a New Welfare State (2002) advised the European Union that the greatest current challenge to developed nations was sus- taining vibrant economies to support the quality of life of its citizens. This is important as changing internation- al economic structures require pro- found adjustments to industrial and labour practices to ensure that citi- zens do not experience deteriorating living standards and the health and social consequences associated with such a decline. To guarantee against this, he argues, governments have the responsibility to invest in social infrastructure " living conditions, education, employment training, etc. " to guarantee that citizens possess the cognitive and social capital required to adjust to changing educational and employment demands of a postindustrial society.
The primary target of such investments should be children since they are the most vulnerable to the effects of material and social deprivation. Such negative experiences make difficult the production of strong, resource ful and productive adults. Child poverty is seen by Esping-Andersen as the greatest threat to human development as well as the greatest threat to a nation’s quality of life. The experience of poverty also results in " as well as con- tributes to " social exclusion, a process identified by both the European Union and the World Health Organization as the primary threat to the smooth functioning of developed societies.
Also important to society is involving as much of the population in active, productive employment as possible. Such activities " and this is especially the case for women " not only strengthen economies and reduce welfare support costs but also strengthen gender equity, thereby promoting human and social devel- opment among women, men and their children. The establishment of living wages, progressive taxation structures and a national system of child care are primary means of achieving poverty alleviation and promoting gender equity through full employment. Strong evidence supporting all of these assumptions has accumulated in the economics, political science, health sciences, human development, criminology and sociology literatures and is sum- marized in the 2004 volume Social Determinants of Health: Canadian Perspectives.
In modern industrialized nations such as Canada, poverty is best understood as a barrier to citizens, communities and entire societies reaching their full potential. Living in poverty limits participation in a wide range of cultural, economic, educa- tional, political and other societal activities expected of citizens. While not as devastating to human health and well-being as the experience of poverty in the developing world, the effects of exclusion from common activities on Canadians’ health and quality of life can be profound.
The high Canadian rates of pover- ty are a concern for developmental, economic, ethical, health, legal and safety grounds among others. Developmental concerns centre on Canadians failing to reach their full cognitive and emotional potentials as human beings. In these early years of the twenty-first-century, human capacity for growth, achievement, cre- ativity and problem solving appears to be almost boundless. Living in pover- ty, however, makes attaining such human heights difficult.
Economic concerns relate to the inability of Canadians to develop the skills necessary for coping with rapid- ly changing economic environments. These require that the citizenry adjust to rapidly changing occupa- tional requirements. Living under conditions of depriva- tion makes it difficult to accu- mulate these adaptation skills.
From an ethical perspec- tive, Canadians believe all members of society should have an opportunity to lead rich, fulfilling lives and that no one should face barriers that make such goals difficult or even impossible to obtain. Legally, the Canadian Constitution, including the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and numerous international covenants to which Canada is a signatory require that Canadians be provided with the opportuni- ties and supports required to live fulfilling lives free of fear, deprivation and exclusion. By these criteria, Canada is repeatedly found by UN committees to fall short of meeting these requirements.
From a health perspective, poverty is a primary cause of disease, illness and shortened life expectancy. Promoting health and preventing dis- ease is a long-established goal of health policy in Canada and essential to the sustainability of the health care system. With respect to safety, it is well established that the incidence and experience of poverty are the main causes of crime in communities. Poverty profoundly affects Canadians’ quality of life.
The degree and depth of poverty are determined by public policies. The most recent Innocenti Research Centre Report Card on Child Poverty in Rich Nations (2005) documents Canada’s standing in the international child poverty Olympics during the late 1990’s (see figure 1). Our mediocre standings result from governmental decisions on how to distribute economic resources among Canadians. Why does a wealthy nation such as Canada have 15 percent of its children living in internationally defined relative pover- ty, while far less wealthy nations such as Denmark and Finland have less than 3 percent of their children living under such conditions?
The immediate answer is that Canada has one of the highest pro- portions of low-paid workers, pro- vides lower benefits for those unable to work or experiencing unemploy- ment and has less spending related to pensions, disability and families than most developed nations, according to the OECD’s 2005 report Society at a Glance. As background, Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States are liberal welfare states (see Esping-Andersen’s Social Foundations of Post-Industrial Economies, 1999).
The main characteristic of these states is reliance upon the market as the arbiter of the distribution of goods and resources rather than the state. Associated with this are rather modest spending on social programs and reliance upon means-tested assis- tance rather than universal programs. Social assistance is limited by tradi- tional, work-ethic attitudes that tend to stigmatize the needy and attribute failure to individual rather than soci- etal failures.
Canada limits assistance benefits since our policy-makers believe gener- ous benefits lead to a preference for relief payments rather than gainful employment. This reflects an implicit " and frequently explicit " view that people are poor due to their own fail- ings. One consequence of this " as pointed out repeatedly by the Canadian government’s advisory body the National Council of Welfare " is that governments do little to improve the problematic living con- ditions experienced by low-income people who are either part of or out- side the workforce.
Canadian political scientists Saint- Arnaud and Bernard outline in the 2003 issue of Current Sociology how lib- eral political economies place primary responsibility for resource allocation upon the market. Their guiding princi- ple is liberty with a concomitant commitment to minimizing government interventions and avoiding disincen- tives to work. In contrast, social demo- cratic regimes’ guiding principle is equality, and policy is designed to reduce poverty, inequality and unem- ployment. Conservative regimes (at least those of the European variety) are guided by the principle of solidarity with commitments to social stability, wage stability and social integration. These latter commitments are consis- tent with the ”œRed Tory” approach to governance in Canada.
What flows from these tenets is profound differences among nations in the quality of employment condi- tions and employment security, wage levels, government commitments to active labour policy and supports to families and children through the pro- vision of entitlements, employment training and organized child care for those who require it.
Members of the liberal welfare state club are not monolithic in policy approaches. Canada developed a univer- sal health care system while the US did not. The UK embarked upon a systemat- ic policy initiative to reduce inequalities in health while Canada has not. There may be room for policy change to reduce child poverty even within the Canadian liberal political economy. There is little doubt the present Conservative Party of Canada sees the marketplace as the pri- mary arbiter of resource allocations. There is also little doubt concerning the NDP’s belief in the state as a leveller of resource distribution. The Liberal Party position is frequently ambiguous but its most recent platform clearly supports state intervention in key areas such as child care, housing and public trans- portation. Recall, however, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe’s aside to Paul Martin during the leaders’ debate in Montreal " ”œLiberals sound like NDPers during elec- tion campaigns and govern like Conservatives in government” " a view held in many progressive circles in Canada.
The advocacy group Campaign 2000 gathered party responses to policy options to reduce child poverty. Table 1 summarizes these options and party positions. It should be noted that in no developed nation except Switzerland does the marketplace by itself produce child poverty rates below 15 percent, and in the Swiss case the value is 10 percent.
NDP positions were consistent with every policy option provided by Campaign 2000. The Conservative position was opposed. These policy options include making resources available for poor families through higher child tax benefits and minimum wages, increasing funding for social housing and providing a national sys- tem of early learning and child care. The Liberal Party position was support- ive of the early learning and child care option and partially supportive of the social housing recommendation. The Bloc position is generally supportive of these recommendations, but its focus on Quebec leads to negative positions on pan-Canadian issues.
The national child care issue is particularly relevant to remedying conditions of child deprivation and lack of employment activity. Child care programs along the lines agreed to by the federal and provincial gov- ernments are known to support child- hood development, and this is especially the case among the less advantaged; support parents in educa- tion, training and employment; foster social cohesion; and support gender equity and equity for children with disabilities. And it should be noted that in 2001, close to 75 percent of Canadian women whose youngest children were aged three to five were active in the labour force and could make use of such a program if it were available.
What is the source of party dif- ferences? Do they result from careful cost-benefit analyses carried out by cadres of human development, health sciences and economics experts? No. Party differences usually reflect values positions that form the basis of party existence. The NDP positions " and some of the current Liberal Party’s " are consistent with social democratic principles of equal- ity. The Conservative position is con- sistent with liberty. The Bloc presents a mix of social democratic and separatist tendencies. This analysis highlights the importance of the political in the policy process. And not surprisingly, analyses reveal that child poverty rates " an aggre- gate indicator of a cluster of policy approaches " are primarily deter- mined by leftist influence in govern- mental policy-making.
Among developed nations, leftist cabinet share is the best predictor of child poverty rates. Rainwater and Smeeding (Poor Kids in a Rich Country, 2003) found a striking relationship between leftist share from 1946 to the 1990s and child poverty rates (see fig- ure 2). And while Canada has never had a member of a leftist party in a federal cabinet, it has had leftist influ- ence during minority governments. The welfare state institutions of medicare and public pensions were established during periods of minority government rule in which the NDP held the balance of power. More recently the strong budget impetus to child care, housing and public trans- portation resulted from a similar minority party situation. By all rights, poverty reduction should be an impor- tant policy goal but, as argued here, may not be a priority for a government of the day. Indeed, the rather limited action on child poverty since 1989 " during periods of Liberal and Conservative governments " illus- trates this argument.
Poverty rates ebb and flow " with- in a very limited range " as a result of periods of economic growth and recession. The National Child Benefit (NCB) policy has probably served to prevent child poverty in Canada from increasing during the last decade, but even then child poverty remains high and shows lit- tle change since 1984. The failure of the NCB to reduce child poverty is a reflection of both its not being sup- plied to most families on social assis- tance and its attempt to paddle upstream in the face of the strong current of tax, income, housing and labour policies that are promoting income and wealth inequalities and weaken- ing the Canadian social safety net. The future of child poverty in Canada " and of associated indica- tors of population health and quality of life " pri- marily depends upon the policy influence of politi- cal parties in federal and provincial parliaments. NDP, Liberal and Bloc dominance in the new par- liament will lead to poverty-reducing policies such as the proposed national child care pro- gram. Conservative dominance will lead to little if any decline in child poverty rates and " due to greater implementation of market-oriented rather than equity-based policies " may increase these rates.
Accumulated empirical evidence on the political economy of poverty in developed nations indicates that in the longer term, the influence of political parties that support reducing poverty is enhanced by implementation of electoral reform. Harvard economists Alesina and Glaeser have shown that poverty levels are lower and govern- ment commitments to supporting citi- zens stronger when popular vote is more closely translated into represen- tation in the House of Commons. These analyses of the influence of the political upon public policy toward poverty are consistent with Canadian political experience since the end of the Second World War.