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Cobe Nelson, 7, and his mother, Nikki Gray, at their townhouse in Victoria. Ms. Gray is hoping the government will help low-income households struggling to make ends meet. (ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Cobe Nelson, 7, and his mother, Nikki Gray, at their townhouse in Victoria. Ms. Gray is hoping the government will help low-income households struggling to make ends meet. (ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL/ARNOLD LIM FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

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To end poverty, guarantee everyone in Canada $20,000 a year. But are you willing to trust the poor? Add to ...

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, one of the more vocal proponents of no-strings-attached aid for the poor, points out that the guaranteed-income program for seniors has greatly reduced poverty, especially among women.

"There's a bias that when given the chance people will be lazy," he says. "That's not my sense of reality."

Mr. Segal argues that giving money with no conditions removes the stigma and shame around poverty, allowing people to focus instead on how to improve their lot.

Requiring the poor to prove continually that they are deserving of assistance or threatening to pull help away without notice only discourages the risk-taking and confidence required to get out of poverty.

"It's dehumanizing," Mr. Segal says. "Think of a mother having to negotiate though Plexiglas for enough money to feed her family."

Or the mom who goes back to school to improve her prospects and loses her welfare payments because she is not seeking jobs.

It also costs people their privacy. Candace Witkowskyj, a legal advocate for welfare recipients in British Columbia, tells stories of people forced to take pictures of the contents of their drawers to prove that they lived alone or to get a doctor's note to justify a $20 emergency food voucher.

"If you think of the core premise of charity, it is not to treat people as lesser," Mr. Segal says. "[It]is to give people a leg-up so they can have some measure of independence and can make some of their own choices."

To do that effectively, he argues, we need to let them decide the steps they take to get there. Or - as Ms. Gray in Victoria puts it, saying she would go back to school for more training if she could count on covering rent and daycare - give some autonomy back to "people who are trying to be somebody in this world."

Erin Anderssen is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.

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Follow on Twitter: @ErinAnderssen

 

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