National Post

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Thursday, October 07, 1999

Governments, activists wrestle with poverty line
Debate rages over size of problem, how to deal with it
Sheldon Alberts
National Post

Sam Lowry, National Post
Homeless people protested recently at a tent city in Toronto.

OTTAWA - Social activists across the country are demanding that governments do something about the tragic effects of poverty.

The federal Liberals are working on a children's agenda meant to address, in part, the notion that countless Canadian children are locked in poverty. Municipalities are listening to social groups warn that the number of homeless has reached crisis levels, and call for more funding for shelters, food banks and other social service agencies.

But at the same time, Jean Chretien, the prime minister, likes to remind Canadians just how lucky they are. In his speeches, he frequently points out that Canada consistently ranks first on the United Nations Human Development Index, making it one of the best countries in the world in which to live.

If it all seems a bit confusing, that's in part because measuring poverty is at best an imperfect science, and there's a good deal of debate about just how big the problem is and what governments should do about it.

By the standards of Statistics Canada, more than 5.2 millions Canadians -- or 17.5% -- live below what's called the "low-income cut-off" level -- defined as the level of income at which a family, if it were to spend as much as the average family spends on food, clothing and shelter, would have consumed at least 55% of its income.

In 1997, the low-income cut-off line for a family of four in a large Canadian city was pegged at $32,759.

The government does not technically call this Canada's poverty line, but the measure is accepted by groups like the National Anti-Poverty Coalition because it compares Canada's poor to more wealthy Canadians in "relative" terms.

Michael Farrell, the group's executive director, maintains the definition of poverty must be relative -- a line drawn that pegs the definition of Canada's poor in relation to how much money the nation's wealthier citizens take home.

But the federal government, at the urging of provincial governments, is currently in the throes of trying to define poverty in more "absolute" terms -- the amount of income a person needs to obtain the basic necessities of life like food, clothing and health care.

Among the proponents of the theory that poverty line should be an absolute measure, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute think tank has been the most vocal.

It issued a hotly-debated research paper last year that defined the basic-needs poverty line as the income needed to provide decent shelter, nutritious food, transportation, clothing and health care costs.

It estimated that the real poverty line for a family of four was about $17,000, and about $7,500 for one person.

By that measure, only 2% of Canada's population is poor.

Mr. Farrell takes issue with the approach. "The people who are interested in seeing (the poverty line) lower tend to view poverty as strictly about people meeting their basic needs. There is typically an attempt to identify those basic needs in as limited a way as possible," he says.

Mr. Farrell says his organization approaches matters differently, worrying more about the "injustice" of income discrepancies between rich and poor. "It is not so much about allowing people to survive, but preventing an injustice."

But the federal government policy analysts who are currently preparing a new definition of poverty believe the Fraser Institute's attempt to define an "absolute" line of poverty is sound thinking -- even if they find their definition of "basic needs" too rigid.

The Fraser Institute report has been criticized because it did not include items like coffee, dental services or eye care as basic necessities.

The Fraser Institute "dealt with what was almost a survival kit," says Jean-Pierre Voyer, director-general of applied research for the federal Human Resources department. "We think it could be possible to have a measure that was absolute, easy to understand, would reflect necessities of life, but without being as harsh, or as basic."

Mr. Voyer said the attempt to find a more clearly-defined poverty line is being driven by provinces who need the measure to determine who qualifies for social programs like the new National Child Care Benefit.

While anti-poverty groups say this is a veiled attempt to lower the line -- thereby excluding people from eligibility -- Mr. Voyer said a better definition is needed so poverty isn't measured by "comparing people with the average Canadian."

"In between the idea of social inclusion and this concept of subsistence, we basically try to define a zone that deals with what gives a person a certain level of credibility or honourability," he says.

The poverty line should be high enough so that those above it "can participate to work in social activities without being stigmatized as a poor person."

Whatever the poverty line is ultimately pegged at, activists like Mr. Farrell admits it will continue to be flawed.

"There is never going to be a single measure of poverty that doesn't have complications or problems. No matter how you want to go about doing it, it is not going to be a definitive one line that works every place for every one," he says.

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