Over a quarter-century ago, Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of a motion by NDP Leader Ed Broadbent to end child poverty by 2000. Few such well-intentioned parliamentary actions have produced such disappointing results.

Since then, the numbers of children living in poverty have dramatically risen, to the point where one in five live in families that fall below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure. According to the Conference Board of Canada, “Of the 13 countries for which historical data are available, Canada had the third-highest jump in the child poverty rate between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s.” Toronto, with one in four children living in poverty, has the dubious honour of having the highest proportion of children living marginally in Canada.

Nationally, poverty was barely mentioned in the last four election campaigns. It has been notably absent in the declarations of Conservative and NDP candidates for party leadership. It did surface last July when the Liberal government rolled out its generous nontaxable child benefit. Although the measure was pitched to the endlessly targeted “middle class,” an unusual claim emerged about its impact on the poor. The minister in charge, Jean-Yves Duclos, called the credit “the largest innovative social policy in a generation” and declared, “We expect the rate of child poverty to drop from 11.1 percent to 6.7 percent. This represents the lowest child poverty rate in the history of Canada.” But so far little substantial evidence has been produced to prove that this is or will be the result.

Duclos announced in September a series of case studies called the Tackling Poverty Together Project, to guide the development of the new Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy. He called the strategy development process “an important step towards reducing poverty in Canada.”

Another possible fix is in the works in Ontario. The Wynne government announced in April a three-year trial project of a nontaxable universal basic income; it would provide a single person nearly $17,000 a year and a couple $24,027 per year. The giant $315-billion Ontario provincial debt militates against universalizing such an expensive program.

All this studying, experimenting and even just giving more money to families with children seems to show a growing public commitment to making a difference in the lives of poorer Canadians of all ages. My work for a decade with a social service agency, Dixon Hall, in downtown Toronto, with the United Way (the largest supporter of the work of such agencies), has convinced me that these well-meaning efforts are just that: good intentions. The many volunteers on the front lines of the poverty issue wait anxiously for proof of a real change in government policies.

The reality is that low-income Canadians are invisible and lack political clout. In Toronto, they are concentrated in downtown areas close to the gleaming bank towers, in huge clusters of dilapidated rental towers not far from the crosstown expressways, or in pockets of subsidized low-rise units near major intersections. Tens of thousands drive by these areas daily, ignorant of the lives led there. In the nation’s capital, where politicians cook up policies to relieve their plight, Canadians living under the poverty line are totally unseen.

Most poor people in cities don’t vote. Their voices are muted. Few politicians venture into low-income towers and apartment blocks. Canada’s first populist politician, Toronto’s late mayor Rob Ford, was famous for meet-and-greet treks into subsidized housing complexes. Few follow him with any regularity.

What’s worse, Toronto has money to improve the lot of poor renters and doesn’t use it! The city government stands accused by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a vocal grassroots pressure group, of allowing $14 million of unspent dollars from its housing stabilization fund to go into general revenue — money that was intended to be available to assist renters who have been evicted or are in arrears on their utility bills.

The Ontario government’s recent budget showed a similar attitude toward poor renters; its lack of funding to keep Toronto’s social housing livable is shameful. This omission is adequate proof in itself of the lack of political influence of poor Ontarians. The failure to fund badly needed repairs will lead to hundreds of units being closed, while there is a waiting list of over 95,000 households for subsidized housing in Toronto alone.

The federal government did promise $11 billion for affordable housing in its 2017 budget, but the majority of it isn’t slated to be spent until after 2022. The long-awaited National Housing Strategy won’t be out for months. Will sizable funds be aimed at fixing up crumbling affordable housing?

What do Toronto’s poor people do when they must wait up to seven years for an affordable apartment? They go hungry. According to Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank, the average food bank user spends 71 percent of his or her income on rent, when 30 percent is considered affordable.

Institutions like food banks and other agencies and community organizations, unlike governments, are on the ground, fighting poverty and its effects every day. They know the issues, but they get very little government funding. The United Way’s grants and donations from other sources are their lifeblood. The United Way pours over $9 million into them yearly in Toronto and York Region, the city’s northern suburbs.

At the very sharp end of the poverty issue are youth at risk: those who grew up in poor living conditions, often in single-parent families, who have dropped out of school and have little hope of employment. Governments are notably absent from programs to help them. The myriad of government training programs and assistance for students mean nothing to this cohort, because few graduate from secondary school. They are forgotten.

With no way to make money, many are lured into drug dealing at an early age and join gangs. They are the stuff of sad headlines. A young man who was in one of Dixon Hall’s youth programs went to jail for a minor offence. When he got out, he went home, where he was confronted by a gang member and shot through the screen door. These crimes are seldom solved.

Programs for youth in poor communities are woefully understaffed. Believe me, it’s hard to raise money for them. Society largely gives up on youth at risk, and they are dramatically detached from the much-vaunted programs to solve poverty that politicians brag about.

The volunteer and social service sector is often their only avenue of support and training. It was long ago, under Prime Minister Paul Martin, that Ottawa killed federal support for women’s and youth training programs run by these agencies. It is long past time for governments to take up this role again, and to get serious about relieving the crisis in affordable housing.

As citizens, we must leave our comfortable suburbs or downtown enclaves and find out about the reality of poverty through the agencies that work in poorer neighbourhoods. We must be outspoken advocates for disadvantaged Canadians and insist that our politicians learn first-hand how poor people struggle. Only then will governments stop planning, studying and promising and start acting.

Photo: People queue for food at the Welcome Hall Mission food bank in Montreal, Tuesday, March 14, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Graham Hughes

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Patrick Gossage
Patrick Gossage was Pierre Trudeau’s press secretary. In 1985 he founded Media Profile, a public relations agency. He was a political adviser to former Ontario premier David Peterson and former Toronto mayor David Miller. He was a board member of the East Toronto social service agency Dixon Hall for 10 years. He is now a political commentator and writer.

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