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The first step is admitting you have a problem

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So there I was Wednesday morning at the Salvation Army breakfast to kick off kettle collection season and I bump into David Northcott of Winnipeg Harvest food bank and Zaz Bajon, general manager of the Manitoba Theatre Centre. The two prominent Winnipeggers are having a fascinating conversation about how both of their organizations are having trouble getting support from a constituency that was always money in the bank: seniors.

With the decline in stock markets, incomes for senior citizens have taken a bath. Less disposable income means fewer season subscriptions to MTC, and fewer donations to Winnipeg Harvest. It’s a sign of the times.

On cue, who joins the conversation but new Health Living Minister Jim Rondeau? Having just been moved to the post in the recent post-leadership cabinet shuffle. Never one to lose an opportunity, Northcott immediately lets Rondeau know that Harvest is under siege and things are getting worse. The Manitoba economy may not have officially gone into recession, but people are hurting and Harvest has always been among those organizations that gets first wind of the approaching storm.

Rondeau, an affable fellow who has yet to demonstrate the level of influence he has in Premier Greg Selinger’s new cabinet, starts reciting his mandate as Healthy Living minister. And how the irony of his job is that it’s not necessarily a health portfolio, but really a socio-economic portfolio. That’s because poverty and its associated health concerns (diabetes, obesity and the like) are really SYMPTOMS of poverty. And how important it is to attack the "determinants" first before getting to the health care part of the equation.

Quite so, everyone agreed. But hasn’t that always been the problem?

Rondeau’s heart is likely in the right place. But lecturing the man who heads up Winnipeg Harvest about how poverty is at the root of much of society’s chronic health problems is like taking a few minutes before your triple bypass to tell the surgeon where to make the incision. Northcott was, however, extremely gracious given the situation.

Poverty remains one of the most elusive problems facing the planet. If you spend too much time studying the issue, it’s easy to become despondent. We can’t solve poverty and starvation in developing countries, in large part because we haven’t figured out a way to solve poverty in developed countries. We spend enough each year waging war to feed everyone on the planet and put them in school, but we can’t seem to get away from our lust for armed conflict. And there is a growing gulf between the have-nots, who don’t know how to get it, and the haves, who don’t want to give any of it up to help someone else.

So, yes, Jim Rondeau, poverty is at the heart of chronic health problems that drive up health care costs and drag down our economy.

And for that matter, poverty is at the root of crime and other forms of social dysfunction. And yes, we’ve got to do something about it.

The question is what? During the 10 years the NDP has been in power, the rich have been getting richer and the poor poorer. Selinger can and will point to a myriad of indicators that show that the poor are still poor, but a little less poor than they were before. But like infrastructure spending, there’s no use celebrating how much you’re doing if it’s not enough to stop the downward trend.

Contemplating the Kafka-esque qualities of the Northcott-Rondeau exchange, I had pause to think about the Harmonized Sales Tax. (I know, I need to get out more.)

The HST is a federal proposal to blend GST and PST into one tax, which gives businesses greater input credits but ends up costing consumers more in the long run. And that doesn’t do much to address the growing gulf between haves and have-nots.

Ottawa is offering billions in compensation to provinces to sign on to the HST. B.C. and Ontario will do that next summer, making Manitoba and Saskatchewan the holdouts.

So here’s an idea. Take all the federal compensation for HST, and maybe a little bit more, and increase the federal and provincial Basic Personal Exemptions, and free millions of Canadians from income tax. It makes it more attractive for Canadians to take minimum wage jobs, and relieves pressure on government to increase the minimum wage because a tax-free minimum wage dollar buys more than one that is worth only 65 cents after tax.

That wouldn’t eradicate poverty. But it would be dramatic. I await the chorus of naysayers and critics who will find fault in my modest plan. Perhaps, however, there is a germ of a seed of an idea here that could help Jim Rondeau attack the determinants.

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