In the media 05/24/2017

Canadians have been very clear. We believe the growing inequality in our country is unacceptable.

In a recent poll commissioned by the Broadbent Institute, an overwhelming 84 per cent of people said they consider the gap between the rich and the rest of us a problem. The same poll found there's broad support for government action on the issue, from cutting down on the wealthiest hiding money in tax shelters, to increasing the minimum wage, and putting more money in income assistance programs.

Our own polling at Community Food Centres Canada also shows people are genuinely concerned about our fraying social safety net, and high levels of food insecurity -- a key marker of poverty -- in this country. Three out of four people feel the issue is getting worse, and believe the government should be doing more to address it.

So where's the government action?

In April, the Ontario government made headlines by announcing it will roll out a Basic Income Pilot for low-income people in four municipalities. It's a step in the right direction, to be sure, but the devil will be in the details. Meanwhile, anti-poverty activists watched the release of the 2017 budget hoping to see a down payment on this commitment -- a serious investment in the poverty crisis, now. But the government failed to address the urgency of this issue when it announced just a meagre two per cent increase to social assistance rates.

For the poorest Ontarians, it's simply inadequate. For individuals living on welfare it translates to just over $14 more a month. This, as the cost of living in the province continues to skyrocket. If the Ontario government truly wants to reduce inequality and enable people to live with health and dignity, they're going to have to do better than that.

On the federal stage, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development has been leading consultations on the National Poverty Reduction Strategy, consultations that will wrap up in June. There is a real opportunity to develop a strategy that, backed by major dollars and clear timelines, will make a real difference for the nearly five million Canadians currently living in poverty. But there wasn't a single mention of the strategy in the government's spring budget. And while the feds' promised investment in affordable housing is welcome, the government missed the opportunity to make immediate impact in low-income communities through such supports as improving income adequacy and access to the CPP disability benefit or increasing the Canada Child Benefit.

So where's the disconnect? Why all the inequality-busting rhetoric but very little concrete action in the here and now? It's not for lack of public support, if you can believe the polls. And it's not for lack of evidence that strong income support programs work: as soon as a person reaches 65, they become eligible for Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, and the likelihood that they'll be food insecure is cut in half. The impact on their health, and on the public purse, is considerable.

How do we make ending poverty a real -- not a rhetorical -- exercise? Can we simply lay the blame on politicians for not taking decisive action? What role do we play?

We can't ever forget that we, as citizens, give politicians the courage to move in one direction or another. If we want them to be bold on the poverty file, we need to go beyond nice words in polls, and give our politicians no choice but to take meaningful action. Change starts with us.

If you agree, join us and thousands of other Canadians in pushing our governments to go beyond consultations and invest in making Canada a more equitable country. Write and visit your elected representatives. That's what they're there for -- let's not let them off the hook. Support a non-profit or coalition advocating for social justice, like the Dignity for All campaign, which is working to create a poverty-free Canada.

Start conversations and get involved wherever you are. We are all diminished when so many Canadians are left behind. It's only by keeping up the pressure, fighting for inclusion and fairness now, that we'll get the Canada we say we want.

By Nick Saul, President and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada