I applaud The Citizen for asking the question “What will candidates do about poverty?”, as it’s a crucial issue, and one that needs urgent political action.
As a teacher at Dwight School in Shawnigan Lake, we participated in several community-based initiatives to fill gaps created by poverty in the region. Each year students and teachers ran a food drive to collect food and funds for the CMS Food Bank in Mill Bay. I also coordinated with Meals on the Ground to get Dwight students to participate in this terrific local effort; many of the students found the experience of serving meals to be one of their most satisfying extra-curricular activities.
All across B.C., community groups, NGOs, and citizens are stepping up to fill the ever-widening gaps in our social safety net. While these groups are trying to meet growing needs, the reality is that the root causes of poverty are not being addressed in our province. We need a poverty-reduction strategy in B.C., and we need to recognize that poverty is a crisis that affects all of us.
In B.C., poverty rates have steadily increased over the past 16 years. Wages have fallen behind — we have one of the lowest minimum wages in Canada — while cost of living has steadily risen. Twenty-five per cent of B.C.’s workers — half a million people — currently earn less than $15/hour, which means that their earnings, even if they are working full-time, put them well below the poverty line.
Meanwhile, life has gotten more and more expensive. Rates for MSP, ICBC, BC Hydro, and BC Ferries continue to increase, and housing costs are creating a crisis in this province. Food and child care costs are also rising, pushing more and more vulnerable families to food banks — over 100,000 in 2016.
Nearly 20 per cent of children in B.C. live in poverty. Social assistance rates have been stagnant for nearly a decade, and are woefully inadequate given the high costs of living, particularly in urban areas. A poverty reduction strategy needs to be a top priority of the provincial government, and should be a provincial election issue.
Raising minimum wage is one approach, however it does not help people who cannot find a job, or who face job insecurity. Minimum wage also does not address the issue of increasing automation that we’re seeing. Analysts and experts predict that rising automation is going to undermine employment rates across all employment sectors, as we have already seen in the resource industries, and is increasingly happening in the service industries. We need to create solutions that recognize the reality that automation is going to drastically change the workforce landscape.
Andrew Weaver and the BC Green Party have investigated the concept of basic income — an approach to poverty reduction that is increasingly gaining traction around the world. Basic income works on the premise that everyone who falls below a certain income threshold would be eligible for payments that would raise them above the threshold. It’s an approach that has been shown to reduce administrative costs for government, and there would be no need for people to submit to the levels of invasiveness, restrictiveness, and social stigma that is currently attached to receiving social assistance. The BC Green Party has committed to moving forward with two pilot projects to determine the effectiveness and potential for success of a basic income program in B.C.
Poverty takes an enormous toll across society. The Centre for Policy Alternatives estimates that in B.C. poverty costs between $8 and $9 billion annually — a combination of social assistance costs and the consequences of poverty, which result in increased burdens on the health system, increased policing and judicial system costs, and lost economic activity.
Basic income is one approach to addressing growing inequality and poverty. Basic income should be part of a wider poverty reduction strategy that recognizes the rights that all citizens deserve: the right to housing, the right to necessities, the right to health care, and the right to dignity. We all do better in a society that takes care of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.
The Citizen welcomes responses on this topic from other Cowichan Valley candidates.