Listening to Hugh Segal, Conservative Senator from Kingston and the Islands, deliver his homily on behalf of "doing something about poverty" on TVO's Big Ideas, I had mixed emotions.
On one hand, a Red Tory, in today's political landscape must be a lonely existence, especially on Parliament Hill, where the "blue" variety dominates, holds the Prime Minister's Officer, the Minister of Finance, The Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Treasury Board, Public Works, Industry, Environment and undoubtedly others.
The lone 'red Tory' left is the hapless Peter McKay, Minister of Defence, whose department has lost control and oversight of the government's purchase of some fighter jet, originally the touted F-35, and now, who knows which substitute.
On the other hand, this space and indeed much of my life's argument has been, and will continue to be dedicated to some kind of "guaranteed annual income" having seen the issue from both sides, from being "dirt poor," dependent on chicken noodle soup and oatmeal porridge for nearly nine months while both unemployed and in graduate school, and also taking home tens of thousands of dollars in a senior executive position. So I heartily endorse, support and indeed give this space to the Senator's pleadings enthusiastically!
Back to Segal, singing a lonely, wolf-cry song from the depth of the Canadian political wilderness, for what used to be termed a "guaranteed annual income" and is now more often referred to as an "income floor" below which no Canadian would, or should fall, if his ideas were to be implemented.
With roughly 12% of Canadians living in poverty, nevertheless, according to Segal, Canada ranks 18th, by the OECD, in terms of the severity of the problem, behind even countries like Hungary.
Segal suggests that given the various "excuses" as to why little to nothing is being done, complexity, bureaucracy, and the more potent "invested public service" whose job it is to enlarge and enhance the responsibilities of their respective ministers thereby rendering them "structurally opposed" to the elimination or reduction of the work of their respective departments, what really happens is a plethora of band-aids targetting at "helping" those living below the poverty line, without achieving much in the way of results of a sustainable or meaningful kind.
"We spend billions on programs that "help" to reduce drop-outs, to reduce drug dependency, substance abuse, safe houses for victims of domestic violence, in effect treating the poor as children, and almost universally never bring them up above the poverty line.
All these billions are being spent on the "causes of poverty" but, in Segal's view, poverty is a core problem, and needs to be seen in that light, not as a series of mere symptoms.
While there is not enough money in the treasury of any country to eliminate literacy, or homelessness, there is enough to eliminate poverty. And Segal's take on why we do not do it focuses on the extremes on the right and left of the political spectrum.
On the right, giving people money for doing nothing violates "some primordial angst" among those on the right, as expressed in the abhorrent phrase, "beer and popcorn"...And this inspite of the fact that the majority of people living in poverty are working, some at more than one job, but failing to earn enough to pay their basic bills.
While on the left, there is a preference for highly organized programs designed and delivered by high paid union members and civil servants. While Segal supports the public service unions, and well paid civil servants, he also believes we have to find the appropriate balance to address poverty in our current circumstances.
Segal cites the example of former Ontario Premier Bill Davis and his Treasurer, D'Arcy McKeough, who, in the 1970's introduced the Guaranteed Income Supplement, which without complicated forms and bureaucracy and no welfare office requiring proof that a better diet was required, reduced poverty among single women from 30+% to 3% in two years! Simply by filling out the tax form, "you got topped up," as Segal puts it.
He continues: If this were a national policy in Canada today, there would be no one who would qualify for welfare because their income would be too high.
And that would free up millions, if not billions in funds provincial governments could use for other important programs, like home care, early childhood education, and maybe even more physical education and music in our schools, for which there is currently 'not enough money'.
Importantly, in addition, people who are now considered clients, or part of a caseload, would revert to become "citizens" in a new, more healthy relationship with the rest of the society. Gone would be the requirement that they plead for more money through plexiglass windows, or that they be excluded from education funding support. Gone too would be the "spider-web of rules that is strong enough to entangle, but not strong enough to support." They would then be able to "spend money as wisely as anyone else."
No longer would they take places in our homeless shelters, prisons, hospitals in numbers that are disproportionate to their numbers in society because they would no longer be embroiled in the "poverty-caused pathologies".
They would, then, like the rest of us, file tax returns. Their confidentiality would be protected by law, as it is for the rest of us.
Being poor for a period of time would be a problem, then, that we all would buffer, in the same way we do with health care. And we also know that the largest
predicter of getting sick earlier is being poor.
What we do now with all our forms, bureaucracy and questions indicates that we want to institutionalize poverty and not eradicate it.