Editorial: ‘Poverty’ declines, nobody notices

Tom Fletcher talks about the annual "Income for Canadians" report

You probably didn’t hear this on TV, the percentage of Canadians deemed “low income” went down slightly in 2010, according to the latest Statistics Canada analysis.

This news was delivered in the annual “Income of Canadians” report last week. The share of people who fall below the federal Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO) went from 9.5 per cent to 9.0.

The CBC couldn’t bring itself to admit any actual improvement, reporting on its website that the number of people with “low income” was about three million, “virtually unchanged from 2009.” Other media outlets followed the unwritten rule that nothing remotely positive must be presented as news, particularly if it reflects positively on a right-wing government. (Plus they had the Montreal body-parts case to update each day.)

This information likely won’t have any effect on the political discussion about “poverty” in B.C. The LICO survey will continue to be used as a measure of absolute poverty, despite the fact that it isn’t. It’s a relative measure that will always designate the same share of people at the low end of the scale.

BC Stats, the provincial equivalent of the federal agency, explained this problem in a special report last year.

“To illustrate,” the report said, “take a hypothetical future Canada where every citizen earns no less than $100,000 (and assume there has not been rampant inflation in the meantime, such that buying power is not dissimilar to what exists today) and millionaires are common.

“In that kind of Canada, those at the low end of the income scale (that is, those earning ‘merely’ $100,000) would be considered poor if LICOs were used as a measure of poverty.”

Math aside, that’s the alleged “poverty line” routinely cited by the usual media authorities, like B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair.

Sinclair campaigned for years to get the B.C. government to raise the minimum wage from $8 to $10 an hour. They did, in three increments, and on May 1 it increased to $10.25 an hour. As soon as the series of three increases was announced last November, Sinclair called a news conference to announce it’s not enough.

To get to the LICO level, the minimum wage should be $11.50 an hour, Sinclair said. Of course, if B.C. businesses ponied up for that, the goalposts would shift again and the same proportion of “poverty” would magically still exist.

The B.C. NDP government-in-waiting continues to demand an “action plan” on poverty, with annual goals. All the progressive provinces have one, which I guess is why poverty is all but eradicated in enlightened places like Manitoba.

There are signs of the reality behind this political smokescreen. Here’s one.

For what may be the first time in history, we now have a North American society where one of the most reliable indicators of poverty is obesity. This often gets explained away with a popular theory that poor people are somehow forced to eat fast food and drink pop because they can’t afford healthy food.

People who advance this theory presumably don’t do much grocery shopping. There are plenty of processed, sugary, fat-laden choices at the supermarket too. But there is also whole wheat bread, rice and fresh or frozen vegetables that are as cheap as anywhere in the world.

Given basic cooking skills and some effort, it’s easy to demonstrate which diet is cheaper as well as healthier. Most immigrants know this. Which diet you choose isn’t a function of money, but rather one of education and self-discipline.

There is genuine poverty in our society. One of the things that’s needed is a useful way to define it.

 

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com

tfletcher@blackpress.ca

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