August 29, 2012

Taking Control of the Conversation: Telling our Political Candidates what We Care About

Last night, I attended my first ever all candidates meeting.  As many of you already know, there are two by-elections happening in Ontario next week and one of them is in Waterloo.   The campaigning time has been short, about 4 weeks in total, and the candidates have been very busy telling us why they are our best choice.  But how much time have they spent listening to us tell them what we want and what we need?  

In the spirit of honest writing, I should tell you that my expectations for the all candidates session were quite low.  I assumed that the candidates would spout their party rhetoric; that I would end up sitting there for two hours listening to the candidates tell us what they think we should care about and why the other parties are not as good as they are.  Instead, the organizers of the meeting chose a unique format which, for 2.5 hours yesterday evening, changed the shape of the political process.

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The topic of the evening was poverty,  inequality and the growing income gap between the rich and the rest of us.  Instead of the typical ‘stump speech’ followed by a question and answer period, candidates were asked to listen to us, to people in our community as we explained the reality being faced by a growing number of people who are living on low incomes in Ontario.

August 14, 2012

Monthly Income, Basic Expenses and What's Left Over

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.  This old adage speaks volumes about the importance of a healthy diet to a healthy life style.  Unfortunately, there are many people living in Ontario who cannot afford a healthy diet, let alone other basic needs, in order to achieve the healthy life style that we all deserve. 

Each year, Region of Waterloo Public Health (and other public health authorities around the province) publish local information about the weekly cost of eating a healthy diet.  The cost information accounts for family size, age and gender.  The Region of Waterloo also does some number crunching and provides a bit of information about basic shelter costs and annual incomes for a number of different family types and income brackets.

Taken together, all of the information tells us a very interesting story.  A family of four with a median after tax income earns about $76,320 a year.  After healthy food and basic shelter costs are taken into account, this family will have over 70% of its income left over for other expenditures.  However, if this same family of four is receiving Ontario Works benefits, they will have less than 12% of their monthly budget ($237) left to purchase the remaining basic needs including school supplies, toiletries, cleaning supplies, transportation and communications. 

A single person receiving Ontario Works benefits, on the other hand, will have over spent their budget by 36% simply by eating a healthy diet and paying market rent for housing.  In reality, a single Ontario Works recipient will be forced to choose between healthy food and a decent place to live and they will have very little money, if any, left over for transportation to job interviews, to purchase used clothing or to buy the cleaning products needed to keep their apartment clean.

One of the main differences between the income (in)adequacy of families and singles living on low incomes are Child Benefits -- the Ontario Child Benefit and the Canada Child Tax Benefit.  Data from 2011 indicate that child poverty has been reduced by more than 6.5% since 2008, when the Ontario Poverty Reduction Strategy was launched.  The Child Benefits help ensure that all children in our province have an income with which one can afford healthy food and appropriate shelter.  Though there is still much progress to be made in meeting the target of a 25% reduction in child poverty by 2013, recent increases in the Ontario Child Benefit are making a difference in the lives of children and families living on low incomes.

August 9, 2012

Moving beyond Growth to Measure Wellbeing

In a recent post, I discussed the idea that economic growth alone cannot eradicate poverty in a developed nation.  But, you may be asking, if we do not measure progress through increases in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) then how will we know if we are making progress? 

There are actually a number of indicators of well-being that have been developed over the years to measure changes in overall well-being. Perhaps the newest and closest to home is the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW).  Based out of the University of Waterloo, the CIW measures our well-being in 8 different categories, including how we treat the environment, our living standards, opportunities for leisure and culture, how we use our time, our health, our education and even our democratic engagement and the overall vitality of our communities. 

Far more than a measure of average living standards, the CIW measures our quality of life.  Average income is certainly a part of this, but just as important is environmental protection and how much time we have to simply have fun and engage with our friends and neighbours outside of work.  If you ask me, this is a far more comprehensive and relevant measure of our wellbeing than whether or not GDP has increased.   

August 1, 2012

Economic Growth Alone will Not Eradicate Poverty

In a recent piece from the Fraser Institute, Mark Milke states that we do not have to accept poverty as an inevitable part of life.  He points out that economic growth has done wonders for poverty eradication throughout the world over the past 200 years.  Through reliance on innovation, free trade and resource exploitation, the living standards of billions of people have lifted far above subsistence.  As a result we have healthier, happier and live longer.

He is not wrong.  In developing nations, economic growth is an important tool for poverty reduction.  Innovation and access to markets have done wonders for the standards of living of all of us.  There is much evidence, however, that in wealthy nations, it is no longer enough to rely on economic growth to produce increased well-being,either for the rich or for the poor.