A York University professor’s new book aims to put reduction of poverty back on the national agenda with an examination of how government policy is negatively affecting Canadians’ health and quality of life.
"In a wealthy, industrialized nation like Canada, poverty is simply not on our radar. It gets swept under the rug," says Dennis Raphael (right), undergraduate program director of York’s School of Health Policy & Management, and author of Poverty and Policy in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life, released last week.
"There is evidence that Canadians appreciate that eliminating poverty is a worthwhile goal," Raphael says. "Politicians and elected governments of every political stripe promise to address it. Why, then, is so little being done?"
He points out that poverty rates reflect, overall, how our nation addresses key public policy issues such as income distribution, employment security, working conditions, housing, income, food security and our network of health and social services.
"Once such an analysis is done and Canada is found to be lacking, the question arises, why is this the case? The reality is that Canada’s political economy supports these public policy decisions," says Raphael.
The statistics are staggering. According to UNICEF, Canada’s child poverty rate during the late 1990s was 14.9 per cent. This is the case even though Canada is wealthier – using the total value of goods and services or GDP – than most other developed nations. As an example, Denmark is not as wealthy a nation as Canada, yet its child poverty rate during the 1990s was 2.4 per cent, representing a virtual elimination of child poverty. This is also the case in many other European nations, Raphael says.
He also points to an increasing body of research which finds that poverty rates cannot be attributed to failings of individuals. There are characteristics that make some individuals more susceptible to falling into poverty than others, he writes. These characteristics include being Aboriginal, having less education, living with a disability, and being female, a recent immigrant to Canada, a person of colour, or a single parent.
"These characteristics by themselves don’t create a situation of poverty," Raphael says. "That situation is created when the political and economic system does not provide employment wages or social assistance benefits at a level for these individuals that allow for a life outside of poverty. And these situations are worsened when public policy does not provide affordable housing, childcare, and health and social services, thereby straining the resources available to these vulnerable groups."
Raphael is optimistic that recent political developments could lead to long-term solutions. He points to growing interest in proportional representation as a means of sending elected officials to Canada’s legislatures. He believes that nations with proportional representation are more likely to send representatives to government with a commitment to equity and poverty reduction.
"The attitudes and values of the Canadian public need to be better-reflected in the laws we enact," Raphael says. "This could lead to an era of progressive public policy in Canada. In fact, we may be on the verge of adopting an alternative societal vision that will reduce – if not eliminate – poverty in Canada."
Poverty and Policy in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life is published by Canadian Scholars’ Press Incorporated.