The federal election will impact vulnerable people. Here’s why your vote counts.
Not voting? Not so fast
“Don’t Vote: It only Encourages Them,” reads a piece of graffiti I saw recently. While this slogan, which has been around for a long time now, is still funny and underscores the legitimate suspicion many of us feel about electoral politics, it is not, in the end, good advice. Yes, many political promises turn out to be empty. And women, poor people, First Nations, racialized minorities, and other marginalized groups continue to get the short end of the stick after elections, as parties and candidates forget their promises and yield to pressure from big business and other special interest groups from the ruling class.
But still, after four decades of observing and participating in Canadian politics, my view is that we should all vote—carefully and skeptically. And then we should keep close watch on those elected to hold them to their promises.
Elections represent only one way for us to try to influence public policy and make it more just. Mass demonstrations, petitions, civil society campaigns, and direct actions all playing important roles as well. But conditions are so dire for the poor and homeless in Canada that we cannot afford to opt out of any leverage that voting orany other strategy might give us. So, please hold your nose if you have to, but vote.
It is worth noting that even if you decide to vote, recent Conservative changes to the laws that govern federal elections will make it much more difficult for you to do so if you are young, poor, homeless, disabled or First Nations. This legislation, which will deny many of Canada’s most vulnerable the right to vote and which explicitly forbids the Chief Electoral Officer from encouraging Canadians to vote, was labeled by the Conservatives as the “Fair Elections Act.” Who says these people don’t have a sense of humour?
With all this in mind, Megaphone has asked me to take a look at what four major parties are proposing on housing and homelessness, poverty reduction, and child poverty. And make no mistake: these are vitally important issues, as Megaphone readers are likely to know.
Conditions are so dire for the poor and homeless in Canada that we cannot afford to opt out of any leverage that voting or any other strategy might give us. So, please hold your nose if you have to, but vote.
A nation’s shame: homelessness
Across Canada, 4.8 million people live in poverty and 3.5 million households are precariously housed, according to Canada Without Poverty. Ours is the only province in Canada that does not have and is not developing a poverty reduction plan. So here in B.C., nearly half a million people live in poverty, including over 20 per cent of the province’s children, according to the anti-poverty group First Call BC.
While the statistics paint a different picture, efforts have been made to tackle poverty issues at the federal level. Back in November 1989, a unanimous, all-party resolution passed by the House of Commons committed our country to eradicating child poverty by the year 2000!
Yet here in the year 2015, over 19 per cent of Canadian children are growing up in poverty, according to Campaign 2000. The shameful percentage of children in poverty is more than double the national average among children who are First Nations, a population over-represented in the homeless population and in correctional facilities across Canada. The disproportionate poverty of First Nations children in Canada today is a damning reflection of the generational legacy of colonial violence, residential school fallout, racism, and systemic injustices that continue to impact some of Canada’s most vulnerable citizens.
Back in November 1989, a unanimous, all-party resolution passed by the House of Commons committed our country to eradicating child poverty by the year 2000! Yet here in the year 2015, over 19 per cent of Canadian children are growing up in poverty, according to Campaign 2000.
In Victoria, one of the cities now home to Megaphone, the death rate among homeless people in 2013 was worse than in New York City. In 2014, Victoria’s homeless count found 1,167 people sleeping in shelters one night, including 89 youth and 116 children. Seventy-eight people were turned away from shelters the night of the count.
In Vancouver, the spring 2015 homeless count found 1,746 people in shelters or on the street, down only marginally from last year’s 1,803. Two hundred and eighty one B.C. residents died homeless between 2006 and 2013, as Megaphone revealed in a special report released last November. The coroner’s report cited in that story revealed that life expectancy can be cut in half by homelessness.
HOUSING AND HOMELESSNESS
So, what can we say about the housing/homelessness proposals made by the ruling Conservatives as we approach the October 19 election?
First of all, it is important to remember that the York University Homelessness Hub estimates that an investment of $44 billion over the next decade (about $2 a person per week) would be enough to end Canadian homelessness altogether. In contrast, the Conservative plan calls for spending only $600 million over five years on its so-called Homelessness Partnering Strategy. In 2013 Conservative votes in Parliament killeda bill to create a national housing plan.
The Conservatives also promise to invest $40 million over four years to restore their earlier cuts to shelters for women fleeing violence, creating or renovating 2,100 spaces in first-stage shelters and 350 spaces in transition houses. This is a traditional move by governments in power. First cut services and create chaos, and then announce that you are generously returning what you stole last time.
And in a final flourish, the Conservatives will allow anyone with up to $35,000 in RRSP savings to withdraw up to that amount for first-time home purchase.
This initiative is unlikely to be of much interest or use for Canadians who live from paycheque to low-wage paycheque or on government transfer payments.
To be fair, the Conservatives do promise to continue their one ongoing major investment in housing poor people: filling the prisons. In a move that should embarrass even hardened Ottawa hands, the Conservatives vow to continue in the tradition of over 60 measures they have created since they came to power to put more people in prison and keep them there longer—this in spite of the fact that Canadian crime rates have been dropping now for decades.
The latest move on this front is the Life Means Life bill and its eliminationof the “faint hope “ provisions that held out the possibility of eventual release to those convicted of serious crimes and sentenced to life in prison. Perhaps there is a visionary Tory genius at work here, longing for the day when pesky poor people will no longer clutter up the streets or conscience of Canada because they are all safely tucked away in prison.
We can, perhaps, look forward to triumphant announcements that the Harper government’s program “Not Housing, but the Big House” (as I think of it) has eliminated all street homelessness.
The Green party is pledging to take a “housing first” approach to homelessness, which means getting people into secure housing first, then addressing other issues in their lives. The Greens say they will spend $400 million in their first year in office on a national affordable housing program, ramping up to $1.3 billion annually by 2018-19. They say they will build 20,000 new affordable housing units, renew 8,000 existing units, and provide rent supplements to 40,000 low-income families. They also commit to spending $800 million a year on clean water and decent housing on First Nations reserves.
The federal Liberals propose a national housing commission to create a national strategy to eliminate wait lists for affordable housing. That should be at least as effective as the hundreds of royal commissions and investigative bodies that have allegedly studied housing, poverty and other social justice issues over the nation’s history. Which is to say, not very.
The Liberals also advocate giving tax breaks to builders to encourage them to build affordable rental units. None of this is very exciting, or likely to make much change.
However, the Liberals also say they would reduce the cost of housing for middle- and lower-income earners and stabilize the economy with job-creating investment in housing infrastructure.
This national housing plan, they claim, will provide sustainable, predictable tax measures to support the development of market rental housing while ensuring existing affordable housing and homelessness investments are permanent.
NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The NDP have outlined a plan based on the 2013 poverty reduction bill killed by the Conservatives, Bill C-400. Their program would, their spokespeople say, focus on people who have been homeless for a long time and on populations that are particularly vulnerable, like women fleeing domestic violence.
The party also vows to increase the guaranteed income supplement for the poorest seniors by $400 million and to return the age of eligibility for old age security back to 65 from 67.
The issues of housing, homelessness, poverty reduction and child poverty are all, of course, intimately braided together, but for a moment, let’s look at what the various parties have to say about poverty reduction and child poverty issues.
It remains unclear whether any investment in reducing human misery is ever viewed as “strategic.”
POVERTY REDUCTION AND CHILD POVERTY
The Conservatives continue to trumpet their dedication to pro-business, anti- government policies, what they call “sound public finance, low taxes and strategic investments” as noted in a late August backgrounder document issued by the party.
It remains unclear whether any investment in reducing human misery is ever viewed as “strategic.” Tory promises to increase the apprenticeship job creation tax credit, first introduced in 2006 to create incentives to foster skilled trades, to a maximum of $2,500, up from $2,000, and extend it to include the third and fourth years of eligible training may qualify as poverty reduction initiatives.
If you squint hard and look sideways, you might also be able to count a promise to create a permanent home-renovation tax credit (an update to the temporary credit introduced in 2009 ). That tax credit would cost $1.5 billion a year. But this promise is will only be fulfilled if the economy improves, and it only applies to $5,000 worth of renovation costs, down from $10,000 in 2009.
Also this summer, the Conservative government announced that the Universal Child Care Benefit would be increased to a monthly $160 for each kid up to 6 years old, and a new $60 monthly benefit for each child between 6 and 18. A Conservative Minister called it “Christmas in July.” Some Christmas! Most of the increase will go to families that don’t need it, much of it will be taxed back, and much of its diminished impact will be wiped out by the cancellation of a tax credit that was brought in much more quietly at the same time the government was spending millions on an expensive ad campaign about the alleged “Christmas in July.”
The Green party, perhaps emboldened by the fact it is not likely to have to take power and deliver on its promises, has proposed an ambitious set of poverty reduction strategies, including, most notably a Guaranteed Liveable Income for all, financed in part by eliminating other forms of government income transfers. This policy, if ever implemented, might well have impacts on child poverty and poverty reduction in general.
The Liberals are promising a new Canada Child Benefit that would be income tested and deliver up to $6,400 a year for each child under six, with the highest payments going to low-income parents.
NEW DEMOCRATIC PARTY
The NDP promise to create a million high-quality child care spaces over the next eight years (110,000 in B.C.) and to hold the cost to parents to $15 a day per child, is a move that may well have big poverty reduction impacts, creating some room for mothers to re-enter the workforce without having all their earnings go to pay for child care.
The NDP promise to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour (only, despite some initial public confusion, for workers in industries regulated by the federal government by the end of a first term in 2019) will have some minimal impact in terms of poverty reduction, providing raises for an estimated 33,000 to 100,000 workers. But the vast majority of Canadians who work for less than $15 an hour work in provincially regulated industries.
Those industries will not be touched by the promised federal increase. So most low-wage earners will have to look to provincial governments (and to direct political action like the union movement’s current cross-country campaign to bring all minimum wage workers up to $15 an hour) for some relief.
Minimum-wage workers in Alberta, for example, will see their pay go up to $15 an hour by 2018 thanks to the new NDP provincial government in that province.
The NDP also promises to increase the guaranteed income supplement for the poorest seniors by $400 million and to return the age of eligibility for old age security back to 65 from 67.
So, there you have it, readers, an overview of poverty and homelessness related promises made by the top four federal parties. Promises are only promises, of course, until they are fulfilled. Nevertheless, we can take this survey of promises as a guide in deciding how to vote. But as noted above, voting is only one step.
Even if Canada elects a more humane and progressive national government this time out, we will need to remain alert throughout that government’s term in office for the inevitable slippage on promise keeping, and remind our political masters of the commitments made during the election.