Archive for the ‘Federal politics’ Category

Something To Chew On This Thanksgiving

October 12, 2015

House of Friendship thinks you should vote for the community you want to seeOne of the first volunteer jobs I had in Kitchener Waterloo was doing non partisan outreach to encourage people to vote. One of my tasks involved standing on a corner, down the street from St. John’s Kitchen (back before it moved to it’s new location on Victoria Street) and handing out material to the men and women who were going in and out of the building to get a hot meal.

I saw a lot of people that day, and not all of them were thrilled to talk to me about why they should vote. While some were enthusiastic, I would say the majority of them expressed indifference, and occasionally, a fair degree of hostility to the political process, in which they felt they had no say, or representation.

Fair enough, the last thing you want to do is stand around with a stranger and talk about the how and why of voting when all you want is something to eat.

Which raises a big question: how can you engage with the political process when you have more immediate concerns in front of you, namely, no food, or even, no place to call a home? (more…)

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More Fantastic Reasons To Support a Basic Income in Canada

September 23, 2015

Part one of this series outlined the state of food security in Canada, explained that most Canadians are food insecure because they do not have enough money for food, and concluded with an idea: basic income programs, which guarantee a certain income to all adult residents of a specific territory, could be an effective policy tool to reduce poverty and so promote food security.

Part two of this series considered a range of practical and philosophical objections to basic income schemes, but as I further explained, no concern is insurmountable. In fact we–Canadians–have tried this before, more or less, and it worked!

I want to repeat that point, because I can: we implemented a kind of basic income in Canada, with positive recorded outcomes.

The MINCOME experiment in Manitoba

From 1974 to 1978, through the “MINCOME” project, the poorest residents of Dauphin Manitoba received monthly cheques whether or not they were working, or disabled, or whatever. The value of the cheques varied according to family income, and brought each family up to a living wage income. The payments were not universal, but like a basic income, they did establish a no-questions-asked income floor. Sadly, when a new government was elected in 1979 the project was scrapped without any analysis or final report.

However, the University of Manitoba professor Evelyn Forget revisited the project documents in the mid 2000s, and wrote a research paper titled “The Town With No Poverty: Using Health Administration Data to Revisit Outcomes of a Canadian Guaranteed Annual Income Field Experiment.” Among other conclusions, Forget found that

overall hospitalizations, and specifically hospitalizations for accidents and injuries and mental health diagnoses, declined for MINCOME subjects relative to the comparison group. Physician contacts for mental health diagnoses fell for subjects relative to comparators. Overall, the measured impact was larger than one might have expected since only about a third of families qualified for support at any one time and many of the supplements would have been quite small.

Forget additionally concluded that “these results would seem to suggest that a Guaranteed Annual Income, implemented broadly in society, may improve health and social outcomes at the community level.” Although she qualifies her conclusions, as a good academic ought to, Forget’s results are significant.

Basic income saves us all money? 

The results of her study are especially significant given what we do know about our current social assistance programs–how they work, or don’t. Don Drummond, the former Chief Economist of TD Bank, has described Canada’s welfare system as

a box with a tight lid. Those in need must essentially first become destitute before they qualify for temporary assistance. But the record shows once you become destitute you tend to stay in that state. You have no means to absorb setbacks in income or unexpected costs. You can’t afford to move to where jobs might be or upgrade your skills.

Drummond’s comments refer specifically to the consequences for individual recipients of social assistance, which I do not want to trivialize. I have never tried to survive on social assistance. The daily grinding poverty that Linda Tirado describes is foreign to me.

Implicit in Drummond’s comments is the point I’ve already made here, and elsewhere: poverty is expensive, and so are our social assistance programs. We all must pay, every time those programs fail to provide real opportunities to the people they purportedly serve.

Canadian seniors have a guaranteed income

So we had the Dauphin “experiment,” which was a relatively small and successful demonstration of the positive effects of a basic income. We should not forget that our Federal Government every day administers another kind of guaranteed income scheme, which most every Canadian who turns 65 benefits from: Old Age Security (OAS). According to Statistics Canada, “your employment history is not a factor in determining eligibility: you can receive the OAS pension even if you have never worked or are still working.” If you are quite rich, you do not get OAS. If you have no other income, you receive a top-up, called the Guaranteed Income Supplement.

So here is more good evidence that guaranteed incomes make people healthier. In her research about food security, the Nutritional Sciences professor Valerie Tarasuk highlights an important connection between a guaranteed income and food security. Her point is simple: Canadians over 65 are the only group in this country to have a guaranteed annual income indexed to inflation, and a basic ‘suite’ of in-kind benefits, like drug coverage, transit subsidies, and various kinds of ‘senior days’ at private businesses. With that in mind, consider the following graph, from Tarasuk:

 

image5

Of all the groups of Canadians receiving financial assistance from the Canadian government, seniors (65 years and older) are the most food secure. They are the only group whose income, meagre as it may be, rises with inflation; and they have the most comprehensive benefits package. (And still there are over 600,000 Canadians 65 or older living in poverty.)

Guaranteed incomes promote health and ensure wealth

In their paper “How a Guaranteed Annual Income Could Put Food Banks out of Business,” researchers from the University of Calgary enlarge upon this point. They start with the remarkable fact that “Canada can boast of having one of the lowest rates for poverty among seniors in the world, largely due to its guaranteed income programs for those 65 years and older.” What’s more, “when low-income Canadians turn 65 years old and leave behind low-paying, often unstable jobs, their poverty levels drop substantially.” They explain how seniors enjoy a unique protection from budget shocks, and how this “disaster insurance” translates into better health: “Self-reported rates of physical and mental health improve markedly as well after low-income Canadians move from low-wage, insecure employment to a guaranteed income at the age of 65.” So while it is true that Canadians in general are among some of the most well-off in the world, it is also true that many Canadians get healthier and wealthier when they turn 65. In other words, we can still do better, and especially for non-seniors living on a low income.

The Calgary researchers’s solution is also fairly simple, and probably not surprising: expand the basic income program that already positively serves so many Canadians, to the rest.

We cannot end poverty, we are told, for so many reasons. It’s complicated, it’s inevitable, it’s not our problem. And yet, a basic income scheme could address the root cause of poverty–not enough money–and free up funds to address what remains.

“Faaantastic!”

Fantastic Reasons Why A Basic Income Makes Moral Cents

September 21, 2015

Ontarians of a certain age and inclination know Mr. Brown, the terribly obnoxious (and fictional) winner of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming’s “Cash For Life” prize. Each week the same mailman delivers a one thousand dollar cheque to Mr. Brown, and each week Mr. Brown crows with delight. “Faaantastic!” he says.

As a child I thought this was a lame commercial and a lame prize. As the spot progresses we see evidence that Mr. Brown is making modest material gains: golf clubs, a boat, incremental additions to his home. I had decided then that winning the lottery should mean being able to check out of life as we know it, buying a castle like Mike Tyson’s, tigers and all. This was not the case for Mr. Brown, who we see pathetically and predictably by his fence each week waiting for the mail man to bring him his cheque. I imagined Mr. Brown driving his slightly better car to his same crappy job; taking marginally better vacations; and maybe, finally, buying organic!

I am older now, and if not wiser, more experienced. I think: maybe Mr. Brown was home to meet the mail man because he quit his job. I think: maybe he quit his job to build the studio he needed, so that he could spend his days drawing charcoal portraits of golden retrievers, as was his childhood dream. I think: what would I do if I had a thousand dollars a week? And although that question invites all kinds of existential anxiety – because what should I be doing with this wild and precious life? I assume I’d eventually figure things out. (more…)

Eat, Think, Vote and Organize for Food Justice in Canada

September 17, 2015

This piece, by Kelly Hodgins, originally appeared in the Guelph Mercury. Kelly is the program co-ordinator for Feeding 9 Billion at the University of Guelph. She and her colleagues are hosting an Eat Think Vote event to discuss these issues with Guelph’s electoral candidates this Saturday (Sept. 19) from 12:30-3 p.m. at Innovation Guelph. All are welcome.

Farm from road

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

I recently received a set of old photos of my parents’ British Columbia farm from a woman who grew up there in the 1950s.

Each was accompanied by beautiful descriptions: the apple tree that fed a family of nine; the pigs that prepared garden beds; the butcher shed my father ran to serve local farmers; the kids’ chores feeding cattle. The captions spoke of a time when food production, processing, and consumption were integrated into our homes, lives and community.

Today, our food system is undeniably disjointed. Approaching the 2015 federal election, I can’t help but reflect on these issues and how they impact all Canadians — rural, urban, Northern, immigrant, adult and child.

Four in particular deserve attention on the 2015 election agenda. These have been identified by Food Secure Canada as the most necessary first steps to a more healthy, equitable and just Canadian food system.

First, we must understand that food has been commodified. Food production has vacated our backyards and has been assigned to an ever-shrinking, aging group of farmers. Food security is compromised when the majority of Canadians rely on purchasing food instead of growing or sharing it. This has serious implications for those who cannot afford adequate, nutritious diets. Four million Canadians are food-insecure today — a figure that is unacceptable in a developed, wealthy nation. Food insecurity is a symptom of poverty, and poverty is a problem of politics. Food Secure Canada is calling on a feasibility study into a basic income floor, to lift the most vulnerable Canadians out of poverty, thereby improving diets, stimulating demand for nutritious food, and lowering health-care burdens.

Barn from house

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

Second, we must pay serious attention to our children, specifically through a national student food program. The frolicking children in these old farm photos had an innate connection with food, and they were (like it or not) involved with its production. Today, my parents host school tours, in which a fraction of the students have ever set foot on a farm, and an astounding majority admit knowing little about cooking. A school food program will improve food literacy, as well as help address the deplorable rate of food insecurity noted above. As the only G8 country that doesn’t provide healthy meals for its kids, we are failing to support our young people’s well-being, as well as their learning capacity.

At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Canada faces an unprecedented farmer-succession crisis. The average age of producers is 55, and there is marginal incentive for any young person to take over. Policy is critically needed to make agriculture a more attractive and viable profession for the next generation of farmers — policy that allows energetic young agrarians like myself to realistically consider moving from talking about food to actually producing it, or that allows new immigrants with invaluable agricultural expertise access to land and capital.

Barn

courtesy of K. Hodgins via D. Vlug

At the same time, those of us trying to create a sustainable food system are facing greater threats every year. The water tower featured in the old farm photos is now replaced with a well — digging deeper for water as summer rains become more sporadic.

But Western Canada’s dry summers (typified by the devastating 2015 drought) are not the only climatic shift affecting our food system. Climate change is intersecting negatively with food-security most dramatically in Canada’s North. There, food gathering traditions are being upturned due to changing migration patterns and weather systems.

Each year, vulnerable northern Canadian communities are made more reliant on imported food. We urgently need politically mandated action that takes direction from those most affected to rectify the astonishingly high food prices and skyrocketing rates of diet-related diseases, which is set to only worsen as centuries-long traditions are erased through irreversible ecosystem change in Canada’s North.

The woman who sent me these old photos of our farm ended her note by saying: “After mother sold the farm, I stopped driving by. The buildings were gone, the fences down, and fields empty. A few years ago, I cautiously decided to come to take another look. My heart soared to see the farm up and running again. Thank you for returning my childhood home back into the land it was intended for.”

I call upon the next governing party in Ottawa to similarly revitalize our Canadian food system.

We cannot afford to see a nation of empty fields and collapsed fences while remaining complacent with four million hungry bellies. We must stimulate our national food system into a healthy and just one: a food system that supports livelihood-insecure producers and food-insecure consumers in tandem.

photo courtesy of Hodgins Farm Valley Road

photo courtesy of Hodgins Farm Valley Road

 

How a $15 Minimum Wage Reduces Poverty and Saves Us All Money

July 23, 2015

[ed: This article also appeared in today’s Waterloo Region Record.]

Karen Maleka is a part-time personal support worker. She works in and around Cambridge, taking care of sick people, old people, people who can no longer care for themselves. Each week she works 35 to 40 hours, and yet her employer classifies her as a part time employee.

I met Karen last Thursday morning in a Tim Horton’s parking lot on Hespeler road, where she had just hopped off the bus. As we drove towards Guelph, where Karen would share her experiences at a public consultation organized by the Ministry of Labour, I asked her what she planned to say. “I’m going to talk about benefits. Because my employer says I’m part time I have to re-qualify for benefits every year, by working at least 1500 hours. Last year my friend found out she had cancer. She missed a lot of work because she was so sick, and she lost her benefits.”

Ontario’s economy is changing faster than its labour laws, and Karen’s situation is increasingly common. Every year more full time jobs disappear, replaced by part time, temporary, and contract jobs. These precarious jobs are lower waged than similar, full-time work. They come with few if any employment and health benefits, like paid sick or vacation days. They are unpredictably scheduled and lack protections when wages and rights are violated.

(more…)

Who Represents Hunger, Part 3

April 1, 2015
Who represents the most food insecure households in kitchener waterloo?

Which local politicians represent the most food insecure households?

If you have been elected to political office, you have a big job.  You have to listen to your constituents, provide leadership, help a lot of people and try and invest in the neighbourhoods and businesses that make up your district.  All the while, you are also working with your political neighbours, reacting to events both big and small and trying to do the “right thing” by different constituencies, some of which, have conflicting views of the world.

People who struggle with poverty and live on a low income are one of these interests, and traditionally, they do not have a respected place in public discussions.  There are groups that advocate for and with them, but in talking about the issues, there are not always good numbers to use to describe the scale or impact of certain social problems.

Take hunger or food insecurity for example.  As I discussed in my previous post in this series, the number of people using food banks is hard to pin down.  It may be getting a little easier in Ontario, as I discussed in a recent post about Link 2 Feed, but if we want to talk to elected representatives locally about the number of people they represent that currently struggle to get food on their tables, it has been difficult, because those numbers haven’t really existed.

(more…)

Who Represents Hunger, Part 2

March 26, 2015
Demand for help is all over the Map and the House of Friendship Food Hamper Program

Heat map of household demand for food from the House of Friendship Emergency Food Hamper Program.

 

Hunger is all over the map.

In every city in Canada, people talk about some neighbourhoods as ‘better off’ than others. Though it can be tricky to specify what exactly ‘better off’ means (higher incomes? more walkable? lower property taxes?), we do seem to share some unconscious understandings about ‘better’ and ‘worse’ off neighbourhoods. However, these unconscious understandings do not often reflect reality. For example, when we mapped the addresses of all the families using our service in 2014 a striking point became clear: hunger is everywhere.

In every urban area in Canada some areas are ‘better off’ than others.  When we look closer at our records, certain neighbourhoods stand out very clearly, but as you can see, every part of Kitchener and Waterloo had someone who received service from us, at least once.  The darker, and redder the colour on the map, the more people that lived in that area needed to turn to us.  In my previous post, I discussed what people have shared about themselves with us, here at the Food Hamper Program.

(more…)

Who Represents Hunger? Part 1

March 18, 2015

For many people this door is their first experience with the House of Friendship Emergency Food Hamper ProgramToday it is snowing and you are waiting outside of a warehouse.

There are a number of other people beside you, shifting from one foot to the other, trying to stay warm.  A few people are chatting quietly, plumes of white billowing out in the cold morning air, but mostly everyone is pretty quiet. You feel a bit tense, and sense the same in those around you.  At 11 a.m. the door opens and you shuffle into a lobby with everyone else and begin to form two lines.  You’re eyes have to adjust for a few seconds, and you have to wipe the fog off your glasses.  You get into the line with the people who have not phoned prior to coming. You’re going to have to wait a little bit longer now.  You feel in your pocket for your wallet, wondering what kind of ID you are going to need to show.

You are at a food bank, you’re warming up a bit, but who are you exactly? (more…)