Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College and a Senior Fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.
Among the key conversations Canadians should have in the coming election year is a discussion on how we deal with poverty. In the last English-language televised debate between party leaders in 2011, the subject of poverty was not raised in any way. Going through another election year and debate without voters being able to assess how each potential prime minister and government would address poverty would be a further marginalization of the millions of our fellow Canadians who live below the poverty line.
This discussion does not have to be a sterile one between competing economists or think tanks of the right, left or centre on how to assess the level of income inequality. Nor do we need to get bogged down on whether inequality is good for a society or lethal to its coherence. Recent books on the issue that compare how well more equal societies do in terms of productivity, trade, social opportunity and the costs faced by the state will no doubt inform any conversation on inequality. There will be ample opportunity for ideologues of all political shades to engage.
The conversation we need to have is about how we are actually dealing with the challenge of poverty now. Are the mechanisms and systems in place, federally, provincially and through NGOs engaged on the issue, likely to make a difference? Are the systems now in place driven by measuring input costs or actual measurable outcomes? Do we have a rational basis for understanding the costs of present levels of poverty on longevity, early-life learning, family breakup, substance abuse, illiteracy, hospitalization or policing and the judiciary? Are we comfortable with how much we now spend and, more importantly, how effectively it is being spent? When physicians and other health-care providers talk about the "upstream social determinants of health" do we understand what the decision points on these determinants are amongst political leaders of all stripes?
A discussion about poverty and how we are dealing with it need not descend into a blame game, although for some in all parties that will be a compelling option. And they will be aided by some in the media, both traditional and social, who will gleefully embrace that caricature of a thoughtful discussion.
It could be a conversation involving the community, volunteer and business sectors, trade unions, political parties, faith communities and engaged academics about ideas for measuring and improving what we now do about poverty in Canada. The OECD has listed Canada among the top five countries in the world in how effectively we deal with poverty among those 65 years and older. Among middle-aged poor, we do substantially less well.
Why is that? What can we learn from that? How can governments, the private and not-for-profit sector co-operate to improve our performance? How many lives are robbed of a happy and productive future because we do not co-operate as well or constructively as we might?
And what about innovation? In health care, manufacturing, agriculture, environment and technology, innovation has been a key contributor to wealth creation, longer life, quality of life and the improvement of the human condition. Do the leaders of our political parties, our public servants, our business and labour leaders truly believe that there is no role for innovation in addressing the poverty that burdens millions of Canadians, most of whom are employed? Or, more troubling, do we think that dealing with poverty is not worth the candle, not worthy of a frank discussion and debate during an election year in a democracy as allegedly inclusive and responsible as ours?
It is true that poorer Canadians do not participate in politics or community affairs as much as middle-income or wealthier people might. For some in public life that could be a reason to devote no time at all to the challenge of poverty per se. But it would be a serious miscalculation of its importance to any legitimate democracy. Any debate about economics must include how to broaden the mainstream and to make more room around the family table for more Canadians.
That is why a conversation about poverty – its real costs in human and economic terms, and the ways it might be largely eliminated – has never mattered more.