A recent Angus-Reid Public Opinion Poll has revealed that Canadians hold some opinions about poverty that would make Americans proud: 41 per cent say that if we gave the poor more assistance they would “take advantage,” 28 per cent believe that people in poverty “usually have lower moral values,” and 23 per cent believe that people are poor because they’re lazy. Canada’s claims of social benevolence are beginning to sound a bit hollow.
The finding that holds the greatest potential impact from a policy-making standpoint is that 54 per cent of Canadians believe that a family of four can survive on $30,000-a-year or less. In contrast, the Salvation Army suggests that a family of four needs at least $40,000-a-year, and in 2009, Statistics Canada found that the average consumption for a Canadian couple with children was almost $72,000. How do you imagine families would fare if $40,000 were suddenly knocked off their budget?
Let’s pretend for a moment that $30,000 is actually enough money for a family of four for a year. Somewhere around $10,000 would go to rent, another $10,000 to food, $6000 to transportation, $4000 to household operation, $4000 to personal care and clothing, $1000 to health care – oops, budget exceeded. Better knock off the transportation and clothing costs: there is nothing unreasonable about expecting a family of four to walk everywhere in whatever hand-me-downs they were able to find at the Salvation Army.
Essentially, a $30,000-a-year income for a family of four translates to zero discretionary expenditure and more importantly, zero savings and zero opportunity for financial improvement. 43 per cent of Canadians have a solution to this conundrum: “a good work ethic is all you need to escape poverty.”
Suppose the parents of this family of four both decide to put their good work ethic to use. They are fortunate enough to find jobs that pay what British Columbia has decided is a fair wage – $8-an-hour. To avoid childcare expenses, one parent works days while the other works nights: they don’t need family time, they have work ethic! Each parent puts in a 40 hour work week and never takes a single sick day or holiday. Together, they would bring in about $33,000-a-year, or just enough to put clothing and bus fare back into the budget – a true escape from poverty.
If, however, the minimum wage in B.C. was raised to $9.60 an hour, these working parents could make the $40,000-a-year the Salvation Army suggests a family of four needs. The problem with the dominant Canadian perception of poverty is the failure to recognize the “invisible poor,” the families that manage to afford housing but can afford little else.
Subsistence is not the Canadian dream, and a true escape from poverty is not an escape from streets and shelters, but instead an escape to a world where you can afford to take a day off when your child has the flu, work towards buying a home, and save for an education.