Poverty rate shockingly high in the U.S., just as rampant in Canada

Five million people in Canada are living in poverty.

Oh God! That bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap!
–Thomas Hood, “The Song of the Shirt”                                         

While my wife and I were recently vacationing in Florida, we read the daily Orlando Sentinel, which kept us informed about everything that was happening in the whacky country of Trumpland. A front-page article in the Feb. 23 edition was especially interesting.

Titled “Over 367 thousand households can’t afford necessities,” it reported that this number of families in Florida “are one pay-check away from financial disaster or in poverty, a rate that has remained almost unchanged since 2014,” according to the United Way of Florida.

The report focused on the large segment of the population that it dubs ALICE—asset-limited, income-constrained employed—people who earn more than the federal poverty level but still can’t afford the necessities of life. They comprise 29.5 percent of the Sunshine State’s working households, with another 14.5 percent languishing below the poverty line.

These somber statistics are not surprising, given that three out of four jobs in the state pay less than $15 an hour.

Florida’s poverty rate is far from exceptional in the United States. The nation-wide 2014 U.S. census found that 14.5 percent of Americans—over 45 million—were unable to make ends meet, up from 11.3 percent in 2000. The poverty-stricken included 14.5 million children—19.7 percent of those under the age of 18. The census disclosed that 19.4 million Americans were living in extreme poverty, which means that their family income was less than half the official poverty line of $10,000 for a family of four.

If it weren’t for the census and public agencies such as the United Way, the extent of dire poverty in the United States would go virtually unnoticed. It’s a subject that is rarely mentioned in the press, and almost completely ignored by the major U.S. TV and radio networks. During the long run-up to the recent election, and during the election campaign, the only candidate who brought up the issue of poverty was Bernie Sanders. Not a single moderator of the many debates included poverty among his or her list of questions to pose to the candidates.

It’s as if there’s a consensus among the major networks in the U.S. to pretend that the country is virtually poverty-free – that it remains the best country in the world in every social and economic sphere. This smugness persists, even after the populist poverty-driven uprising that produced a new President whose right-wing extremism, ironically, will worsen poverty, not alleviate it.

Oh, oh, Canada

We Canadians tend to take a “holier-than-thou” attitude toward our southern neighbours. We shake our heads in disdain at the social and economic malfeasance that permeates its culture and economy. We see the election of the egotistical, mysogynistic, and blatantly unqualified Donald Trump as the ultimate in folly — especially for a nation that still prides itself as the world’s best.

But we take our sense of superiority much too far when we proclaim that it’s Canada, not the United States, that is the best country in the world. That’s more like chauvinism than true patriotism. Yes, Canada in many ways is a better country than the U.S. in which to live. We have better health care and education systems, far less racial conflict, less crime and incarceration, far fewer guns and gun killings, and more generous social programs, to name a few of our advantages.

Such unfounded national pride supports a myth that Canada has already reached the peak of accomplishment and thus needs no further improvement.

But ours remains a far from idyllic nation. Canada still lags well behind most European countries — socially, economically, politically, and environmentally. Ranked on the basis of most factors that shape a nation’s living standards, we have no valid evidence to support a claim that Canada is the best country in the world. We may be ninth or tenth among the Top Ten, but more likely are even lower.

Some may feel I am being unpatriotic, but, in a way, what’s really unpatriotic is to ignore our country’s deficiencies instead of acknowledging them. Such unfounded national pride supports a myth that Canada has already reached the peak of accomplishment and thus needs no further improvement. It’s a form of ultranationalism that undermines efforts by activists to tackle the poverty, inequality, unfair trade, loss of well-paying jobs, undemocratic elections, and environmental contamination that together prevent Canada from fulfilling its vast potential.

Following is a list of facts and figures that expose the reality of life in Canada. They have been gleaned from census reports and various socioeconomic agencies such as Canada Without Poverty, and can easily be Google-verified.

Some telling statistics

  • On a per capita basis, the poverty rate in Canada is nearly as high as it is in the United States. With 45 million Americans out of a total population of 320 million living in poverty, that works out to roughly one in seven. In Canada, with 5 million people in poverty out of a total population of 37 million, that works out to be just marginally (one-third of a percentage point) lower than the U.S. rate. Certainly nothing to boast about. 
  • Three million Canadian households are living in housing conditions that are sub-standard – overcrowded, inadequately furnished, and barely affordable for low-income families. One in every five households are being forced to spend 50 percent of their income on rent.
  • Canada is one of the few advanced industrialized countries with a public health care system that doesn’t cover pharmacare, dental and vision care, as well as the services of doctors and hospitals. One in 10 Canadians often can’t afford to fill their medical prescriptions.
  • Three million Canadian children – one in five – are living in poverty. UNICEF ranks Canada 17th among 29 wealthy countries due to its high rate of child poverty, and 26th for its dismal overall rate of child care. The OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) has ranked Canada dead last out of 25 countries for the inadequacy and inaccessibility of its child care programs.
  • Unlike most countries in Europe, Canada still doesn’t have a national, accessible, affordable, and quality child care network. Most European countries have committed to providing an ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care) place for all children, either by legislating a legal entitlement or by making attendance compulsory. Eight European nations – Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany, Slovenia, Estonia and Malta – guarantee a legal right to ECEC for all children soon after their birth.
  • 21 percent of single mothers in Canada have to raise their children while living in poverty.
  • Among Canadian cities, Toronto has the most children living in poverty: 133,000 – 27 percent, one in four. Montreal is a close second.
  • One in eight Canadian households struggle to put food on the table, even though 62 percent of their breadwinners have low-wage (obviously underpaid) jobs. Only the food banks save them from starvation. Since 2008, food bank usage has increased in all provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador.
  • Between 1980 and 2005, average earnings among the poorest in Canada fell by 20 percent, and part-time, low-wage employment has risen by 50 percent over the last two decades.
  • Nearly two million Canadian seniors rely on the GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) and live on about $17,000 a year — $1,000 below the basic standard of living for a single person.
  • An estimated 235,000 people in Canada were homeless on any given night in 2016.

This is just a sample of the statistical evidence that makes it clear that the lives of millions of Canadians and their children are wretched, precarious, unhappy, and often plagued by cold and hunger.

I’ve cited these dismal data before, and probably will again – if only because so many Canadians (those with good jobs, good salaries, good health, and good prospects) have a tendency to shut their minds to the dire misfortune afflicting millions of their fellow Canadians. Many salve their consciences by contributing generously to the food banks, but never think of getting actively involved in a concerted effort to reduce the inexcusable rates of poverty and inequality.

Many salve their consciences by contributing generously to the food banks, but never think of getting actively involved in a concerted effort to reduce the inexcusable rates of poverty and inequality.

They jeer at the results of the last American election that put a paranoid right-wing extremist into the White House. They dismiss any possibility that the same backward political upheaval could happen here. But Trump’s unanticipated victory was largely fuelled by a massive populist uprising against the poverty, inequality, and massive job losses that were left to fester for many years by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Had left-leaning Bernie Sanders been chosen as the Democratic party’s candidate, he could have bested Trump with his appeal to the many millions of dissident voters who financed his campaign and thronged his rallies. But when the party instead favoured Hillary Clinton, a leader of the unpopular political establishment, many voters on the left as well as the right were left with Trump as their only (mis)perceived anti-establishment choice.

Social and economic injustice remains rampant and unaddressed in Canada, too, along with the same complacency among our elites. We don’t have a Canadian duplicate of Trump, but we do have the ultraconservative Kellie Leitch, Kevin O’Leary, and Brad Wall, any of whom could exploit and muster the support of dissatisfied, resentful, and politically uninformed voters. Their numbers in Canada are still well below the level reached in the U.S., but who knows how much higher the rate of discontent may rise by 2019?   

The less than impressive record of the Trudeau Government so far in its approach to poverty, taxation, Indigenous Peoples, the environment, taxation, and health care do not bode well for the maintenance of its post-election popularity. Dark clouds have started to obscure the “sunny ways” and “sunny days.” And Justin Trudeau’s cynical abandonment of his solemn vow to replace Canada’s undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system with one based on fair proportional representation not only tarnishes his reputation. It also makes a right-wing upsurge in 2019 all the more probable.

Especially if progressive Canadians lose sight of the disturbing facts and figures listed above.

Ed Finn was editor at the CCPA Monitor for 20 years. Formerly, he was editor of the Western Star in Corner Brook, a reporter at The Montreal Gazette, and for 14 years wrote a column on labour relations for The Toronto Star. He also served for three decades as a communications officer for several labour organizations, including the Canadian Labour Congress and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

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