Manitoba’s shocking poverty rate

In recent weeks, two local organizations have raised the issue of poverty in Manitoba. In December, the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg issued its 2012 Child and Family Poverty Report Card. Last Friday, Make Poverty History Manitoba rallied 250 of its supporters on the steps of the Manitoba Legislature, demanding that housing allowances for Employment and Income Assistance recipients be brought into the 21st century.

Judging from the comments left under just about any article on poverty that we see on mainstream news web sites, there are many who believe that poor people deserve their fate and helping them only encourages laziness, dependency, addictions, and so forth. However, reputable research suggests that Manitobans are more fair-minded than this. For example, in a 2008 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives entitled Ready for Leadership: Canadians’ perceptions of poverty, the authors found that a majority in Manitoba supports government action to reduce poverty. Nonetheless, poverty is on the increase and government efforts to address it seem half-hearted.

Poverty on the increase in Manitoba

According to the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, “While the national poverty rate has remained relatively stable since 2006, the child poverty rate in Manitoba has been gradually increasing and remains 6.4 percentage points higher than the national average.” The SPCW reports that Manitoba had the second highest child poverty rate in Canada in 2012, with over 20% of our children (about 54,000) living below the poverty line as defined by Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure After Taxes.

In Manitoba, the fastest growing banks are the food banks. Some statistics gleaned from the Winnipeg Harvest food bank web site tell the story:

  • Winnipeg Harvest provides emergency food assistance to nearly 64,000 people a month across Manitoba. Therefore, Winnipeg Harvest clients are Manitoba’s second-largest city. This figure is up more than 14% over the same period last year.
  • More than 47% of its clients are children. For each of the last two years, Manitoba is the #1 province for food bank use.
  • Winnipeg Harvest feeds more 30,000 children each month. Ten years ago, that number stood at 5,500 children.
  • Seniors and refugees have more than doubled in food bank use since 2010.
  • 1/3 of families experiencing hunger are dual wage-earner families, i.e, the working poor.
  • Winnipeg Harvest distributes food to more than 330 agencies throughout Manitoba
All Aboard

With great fanfare, the Manitoba government announced its ALL Aboard: Manitoba’s Poverty Reduction and Social Inclusion Strategy in 2009. In 2011, the The Poverty Reduction Strategy Act became law, committing the Province to include a poverty reduction strategy in its annual budget. Last April, the Province released its four-year poverty reduction plan. While the strategy appears, upon first reading, to take a comprehensive approach to tackling poverty, two serious shortcomings are immediately evident:

  • The authors appear to believe that poverty rates in Manitoba are shrinking; they make the claim that the number of Manitobans living in poverty went down by 6,000 between 2000 and 2009. Research from the above-cited sources suggests that the opposite trend is more likely.
  • There are no concrete goals against which the government’s performance can be evaluated. Instead, we are given vague indicators against which progress will be measured.

A second reading of the strategy reveals it to be a glossy, feel-good kind of document which does little to instill confidence that the provincial government is seriously committed to poverty reduction. But don’t take my word for it; read it yourself.

Déjà vu all over again

Source: Social Planning Council of Winnipeg’s “Child & Family Poverty 2012 Report Card” citing Statistics Canada (2010). Income in Canada, CANSIM 202-0802.

Manitoba’s child poverty rates have remained above the national rate since 1989 when Canada’s House of Commons passed a unanimous all-party resolution to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Canada’s national poverty rate remains pretty much where it was in 1990.

In 2009, the House passed another unanimous motion to “develop an immediate plan to eliminate poverty in Canada for all.” The Manitoba government seems to have bought into the legislative zeitgeist. However, unless there are some significant changes in their approach, nothing will change. The rich will get richer and the poor poorer — all of this occurring in the heartland of one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

A good place to start would be to acknowledge that poverty is growing and to act accordingly. This would include setting real goals and dedicating more resources to meet them. It would also mean backing away from its failed strategy of regular tax reductions so we have more resources to allocate to alleviating poverty. It would mean educating the public about the true nature of poverty and taking the risk that an honest dialogue would win over all but the most diehard reactionaries in the province.

Finally, for starters, why not increase the funds allocated to housing in the EIA budget, so that disabled, unemployed and other immiserated Manitobans don’t have to choose between paying the rent or putting food in their bellies?

Paul S. Graham

About

Politics and alternative media are my passions. I blog about peace and social justice at http://paulsgraham.ca, post videos in the same vein at http://youtube.com/redriverpete and contribute to Winnipeg Community TV (http://wcommtv.org). Follow me on Twitter @RedRiverPete.
http://paulsgraham.ca