April 28, 2017

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Analysis

Generosity doesn't solve poverty

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/12/2014 (863 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It's the holiday season, so Winnipeggers are operating at peak generosity.

Arm's-length strips of raffle tickets are sold at school Christmas concerts and office parties all over town to raise money for the Christmas Cheer Board, Siloam Mission, the Sally Ann. The United Way's annual campaign is nearly done and almost at its $20-million goal. Winnipeggers are busy assembling shoeboxes and hampers and even piles of baby formula. As a think tank reported Tuesday, income-tax data proves we, indeed, are the most generous folks in Canada.

This warm-hearted impulse is wonderful, the best part of us. The trouble is, it's not enough.

Charity is not fixing the province's most serious problem. The poverty and welfare industry -- further entrenched by 15 years of NDP rule -- isn't, either.

Food bank use rose 2.4 per cent last year. Child poverty has also gone up over the last two decades. At last count, 29 per cent of Manitoba's kids lived below the poverty line, the second highest rate in Canada. Homelessness and marginalization, especially of indigenous people, is not getting better nearly fast enough. Poverty is cemented in place by structural problems that no amount of charity and welfare can fix and that no politician appears willing to tackle.

While we're dropping off canned goods for Winnipeg Harvest, we also need to embrace two radical solutions -- a genuine national reconciliation with indigenous peoples that's backed up by cash and a guaranteed annual income.

Last week, hundreds of chiefs gathered for a meeting of the Assembly of First Nations in Winnipeg repeated all the same grievances they've had for a century -- treaties ignored in spirit and practice, an Indian Act that sets reserves up to fail, a federal government that waivers between indifference and attack, a country only very slowly learning its own less-than-noble history. Punctuating all that was the release of the inquest report into the death of Brian Sinclair, a report that refused, as did several government and health officials, to say racism played a role in Sinclair's fatal, 34-hour emergency room wait.

Canada needs to start fresh with First Nations people, to look clearly at what was promised by the treaties, at how true self-government might work and how First Nations can share the wealth of the land they gave us. If that can't happen, at the very least, Canada must make sure child welfare, education and health funding on reserve matches what children off-reserve get. That alone, in one generation, could catapult thousands of indigenous families into the middle class.

Then there's the poverty industry, created largely by an NDP government that off-loaded much of the real work onto dozens and dozens of non-profit, inner-city agencies that now line Selkirk Avenue and Main Street and Broadway. Those streets are filled with neighbourhood associations, housing groups, anti-gang programs, parenting classes, food banks, outreach services, anti-prostitution initiatives, training and education programs and addictions services. Those are staffed by committed people doing yeoman's work with precarious "project funding" that evaporates after a few years, leaving some other agency to start from scratch on the same problem a few years later. Many of these programs overlap. There is little measurement of outcomes, so we don't know what really works. And every year brings a new agency.

Meanwhile, we've turned welfare into something out of a Kafka novel. A typical welfare cheque is more complicated than a tax return, and nearly as hard to figure, with a long list of clawbacks and line-items for bus fare, laundry, a phone, a high-protein diet. It adds up to a pittance and it's so prescriptive, so infantilizing that it robs recipients of any autonomy and forces them to fight for every penny.

There's a better, cheaper, more respectful way to help poor people. We should give them more money, just a little, and let them decide how to spend it.

In the 1970s, Manitoba tested a guaranteed annual income in Dauphin, with remarkable effects on long-term health and family stability, and virtually no effect on job rates. In recent years, the idea of a guaranteed annual income, worth maybe $20,000, has gained some traction among academics, poverty activists and even Red Tories such as former Senator Hugh Segal. But no political party, even Manitoba's NDP, has ever broached the idea.

And that's a shame because it would probably save us billions in the long-run. We could stabilize the lives of the most frequent, complicated and expensive users of our health care system, those like Brian Sinclair, who visited the ER 31 times in his last five years of life. We could eliminate one key reason kids end up in foster care, the neglect that comes with poverty. Our homelessness strategy might be 10 pages long instead of 75. And, we could essentially do what Winnipeg Harvest's David Northcott has been begging us to do for decades, which is put him and his food bank out of business.

We Winnipeggers should be our best generous selves this Christmas, but make a New Year's resolution to finally tackle real, radical solutions to poverty.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

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