This article was submitted by long-time VCC contributor and PovertyTalks member, Fred Robertson.
Sometimes when I leave early for my volunteer work, I see her on the bus. She’s pushing a stroller with two kids in it. She’s dropping them off at the Daycare, which she pays through the nose for. Then she’s off to her two part time jobs, trying to make enough money to pay the rent and keep her family together. Something’s wrong in “Boom Town”.
There are over 115,000 poor people in our city earning less than the Low-Income Cut Off. By any definition, this represents at least one quarter of the 400,000 poor in our province. Okay, I know – poverty is relative. Our poor are a hell of a lot better than Somalians, but so what? Many of them came to our country seeking a good life, a decent income, and a future. Many spend the rest of their lives working for close to a minimum wage doing the jobs that many of us so called “Real Canadians” won’t touch, and that’s wrong. Many are Aboriginal whom we seem to think we can buy cheaper. The majority are women.
I’m a senior citizen. After managing three hotels on the west coast, I had a nervous breakdown, helped by alcohol addiction and depression. I wound up working out of “Casual Labour” offices, often for minimum wage. Sometimes the “Jobbers” were making more per hour for my labour than I was. These still exist in our city.
A semi-decent income in our city (defined as a Living Wave by Vibrant Communities Calgary at a MINIMUM of $13.00 per hour) is necessary to afford any approach to a life that affords dignity and an opportunity to participate in one’s community. Many of us make that. Thousands of us don’t. We have the distinction of having the biggest gap between the rich and poor of any city in Canada … So much for “Great Place to Live”.
And when employers scream “If we paid that, we’d go bankrupt!”, the only answer must be: “If you can not pay your employees a salary that would allow them a modicum of human dignity – then you deserve to go bankrupt- and good riddance to you”. I would follow by asking the few companies still paying a minimum wage: “How do you feel about slavery?!”
I think we’re all smart enough to make money. The problem seems to me to be that we don’t quite know how to share it more equitably. In spite of all this, I still love this city, it’s people, it’s entrepreneurs, it’s drive and it’s beauty. We can do better and I know we will.
Best Wishes, Fred Robertson
A few weeks ago, Vibrant Communities was asked a few thoughtful questions ahead of the Alberta Conservatives’ budget release due next week. Below is our response to the last question.
Question #4: What promises did the PCs make during the election that I don’t want to see them break?
Certainly, the most important promise that Premier Redford made during her campaign was the commitment to create a 5-year plan to eliminate child poverty and a 10-year plan to reduce poverty in Alberta. This is a bold commitment, but one that tackles one of the most pernicious and persistent problems of our time, and that of many generations before. Somehow, the issue remains: we have yet to sufficiently moved the needle on poverty. At Vibrant Communities Calgary, we believe the only way this can be successfully done in any meaningful and lasting way is to establish a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy that addresses – no, attacks – the root causes of poverty. Premier Redford’s announcement to craft a 5 and 10-year strategy ought to do just that; take a long and thoughtful look at the face of poverty in Alberta and act upon it.
There are 400,000 people in Alberta living in poverty. That alone should be reason enough to reduce it, if not eliminate it in our lifetime. The benefit to a comprehensive and broad poverty reduction strategy is that it acknowledges the complexity and the interconnected nature of poverty. There are as many ways into poverty as there are ways out of it, and it is critical that the province be aware that no two stories are the same.
In our Poverty Costs report, co-published with Action to End Poverty in Alberta, we determined that poverty costs Alberta 7.5 to 9.1 billion dollars a year in health care, judicial system and intergenerational costs alone. And that’s a conservative estimate. A recent report from Canada Without Poverty placed the national cost of poverty at 72 to 86 billion dollars annually!
More often, we hear about ending child poverty. Let’s be clear that for every poor child, there’s a poor family. We know that poverty is intergenerational. And we know that a child cannot be helped without helping the family from which she came. However, we know that reducing poverty amongst children may be an easier task, and may have some of the biggest returns. The impacts of poverty on children are undeniable, and the lifelong effects are deep. Literacy, health, social participation, nutrition, employment opportunities and access to education are all negatively impacted by a child’s formative early years when lived in poverty.
Premier Redford has made good on her promise to initiate a Social Policy Framework and has created the Human Services Ministry in which a Poverty Reduction Strategy would fit. Alberta is one of the last provinces to implement such a strategy, and it is critical for all of us, but particularly for those 400,000 Albertans living in poverty, that it move forward.
A few weeks ago, Vibrant Communities was asked a few thoughtful questions ahead of the Alberta Conservatives’ budget release due next week. Below is our response to Questions #2 and 3.
Question 2: What are your concerns or expectations about service cuts?
Primarily, our concerns about any service cuts are that they impact frontline services accessed by vulnerable Albertans. We are concerned that there will be a slowdown in the processing of paperwork and applications as a result of increased workload for caseworkers. It is critical that cuts have a minimal if any impact on Albertans who rely on those services for their survival. Poverty can have a vicious grip, so anything that decreases the length of time that a person is trapped in the cycle is an improvement. Conversely, anything that lengthens the time exacerbates the reality and complicates an exit from the cycle.
If Premier Redford holds true to her promise that cuts will not be felt by those receiving them, then my concerns lie in the stalling of changes which, though initially may cost, could present long-term benefits, cost-savings and efficiencies. The implementation of a common intake and a single data source come to mind. These are processes that are technologically intensive and time-consuming to implement, however in the long run would have tremendous impact in reducing the silos between departments, in streamlining processes and in establishing a single point of entry for Albertans entering the Human Services system. In fact, budget cuts may reverse efficiencies; increasing departmental silos as a result of internal change and self-preservation.
Question 3: What changes do you think should be made to address Alberta’s deficits?
Adopting a model of poverty prevention could represent astronomical savings for the government. Vibrant Communities Calgary estimates savings is in the range of 7.5 to 9.1 billion dollars per year. The implications of poverty on health, criminality and intergenerational costs cannot be overstated, and if the root causes of poverty were meaningfully addressed, the savings would be significant, to say the least.
From a revenue perspective,when considering Albertans living in poverty, a sales tax is not the answer. Even a sales tax rate of 2 or 3 percent would have a negative impact on poor Albertans. And a sales tax credit, which has been suggested by many in the community and the legislature is simply an inadequate reimbursement. It assumes an eligible recipient has a fixed address, a current tax return and a bank account. More importantly, it assumes that a person can afford to spend the money in the first place, then wait for it to be reimbursed. What we should strive to do is leave more money in the pockets of poor Albertans to begin with, rather than ask them to spend it today with the promise that it will be returned down the road. It seems to me that we would be borrowing from the people who are in no place to lend. As an alternative, we would recommend a progressive income tax and a higher corporate tax rate. If we are talking about increasing revenue through taxes, let’s look at sources who can afford it.
Question #1: What are the most important government services from our perspective?
For most of us, it is challenging to consider not being fairly paid for our time at work. But many work just as hard, if not harder, than we do and are not paid enough to pay rent. Or after their 8-hour shift, they have to go and line up at the food bank because there’s no money left for groceries. This is the case for thousands of Albertans working for minimum wage. Minimum wage may technically not be a service, but is instead a crucial piece of legislation with an impact that cannot be overstated.
Secondly, income replacement for those who cannot work is another important service. However, if the Government of Alberta recognizes that there is a group of people in this province who cannot earn employment income, and the government further recognizes that they have a responsibility to provide them with replacement income, then let’s really commit to that responsibility. It is not something that we can do half-way. I would argue that Barriers to Full Employment through Alberta Works, and to a lesser degree, AISH, is completely ineffectual because it simply doesn’t go far enough. It provides an individual with some income, but in the case of the former falls embarrassingly short of the Low Income Cut Off. A single individual with no children eligible for Barriers to Full Employment Alberta Works Income Support receives $583 per month. If we’re going to provide income to people – who the Government admits cannot work – let’s ensure they have enough money to live with basic dignity and the opportunity to participate in society.
Lastly, an important service that the government provides but which leaves significant room for improvement is the provisioning of affordable childcare. Childcare may be the greatest impediment to full-time employment and points dramatically to the disproportionate number of women, and single mothers living in poverty. The impact of a fully subsidized childcare program in Alberta may be the single most effective way of reducing poverty amongst families. It reduces a household’s expenditures and provides reliable and safe care for children to allow their parent(s) to fully participate in the workforce, thereby breaking the cycle of poverty. Women would be afforded the ability to develop autonomy and financial freedom and would contribute to their own CPP and EI premiums, serving to empower them with resiliency, adaptability and self-sufficiency.
A sales tax seems to be on the lips of many these days in light of Premier Alison Redford’s announcement that we are living in the days of a ‘bitumen bubble’. To address the estimated budget shortfall of $6 billion, many are discussing ways to increase revenue for the Government of Alberta through different forms of taxation. During last weekend’s First Annual Alberta Economic Summit, a sales tax seemed to be top of mind as the best source of quick cash. It’s easy to administer and easy to collect in stores at the time of purchase. But for all the ease in collecting it, a sales tax would present some very significant issues to Albertans living in poverty.
For the 400,000 people in Alberta struggling to afford the basic necessities every month, an additional tax represents a very real cost for people living in poverty. It is simply an added expense that many cannot afford. True, there may be a promise of a tax rebate once a year, but this ‘solution’ is based on a number of unfair assumptions. It assumes a fixed address, a bank account, and a tax return. It also assumes that people who live in poverty can wait that long. What matters most is that these Albertans are able to have more money in their pockets every month, not to have them spend more every month with the promise of getting some of it back come tax time. A sales tax also has a disproportionate impact on Albertans living on Income Support such as AISH and Alberta Works. This income is not currently treated as taxable income. However, with a sales tax model, these individuals would be paying tax on their purchases. Is it reasonable to ask someone earning $583/month on Alberta Works to pay a sales tax on the few goods and services they can afford each month? Is this a group of Albertans that can fairly be deemed a revenue source?
Premier Redford has made it clear that a sales tax is not imminent, far from it. A sales tax could only be implemented following a provincial referendum anyways. There are alternatives to a regressive sales tax; a progressive income tax model that taxes money coming in to a household rather than when it gets spent, and a far more modern and assertive corporate tax system. If we think increasing revenue through taxation is the solution to our budgetary woes, it seems only fair to tax people who can afford it.