Spencer van Vloten: 2024 must see Canada step up to stop poverty

Opinion: Does people lining up for a loaf of bread seem fitting in a wealthy country that prides itself on providing a high quality of life?

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As we step into 2024, the choices we make will determine whether we continue to witness the erosion of well-being or embark on a route that prioritizes all Canadians.

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2023 is ending soon, and it is a fitting time to reflect.

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While many of the year’s biggest headlines came from abroad, one of the most important questions we can ask is: How did Canadians fare at home?

And when it comes to poverty, Canada has taken a step backward.

The federal government’s newly released Fall Economic Statement mentions the word just twice in 141 pages, yet poverty has increased nationwide.

This includes for nearly every demographic  — seniors, people with disabilities, newcomers, Indigenous and racialized Canadians among them — with one in four working-age single adults living in poverty.

This year rents also rose, housing availability fell, and homelessness swelled across Canada, particularly in major cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal — at a cost of billions of dollars a year.

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The price of groceries reached new heights, and increasingly Canadians accessed food banks in order to eat for the day.

Doesn’t people lining up for a loaf of bread seem more fitting of an austere, wartime society than a wealthy country that prides itself on providing a high quality of life?

When considering what has gone wrong, some policymakers, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, are quick to blame forces beyond our control, as if we had to passively sit back and accept whatever the world imposed on us.

While it is true global factors have shaped our situation at home, this cannot excuse years of underinvestment and timid policies that have left Canadians vulnerable to international downturns and helped created domestic crises.

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Now it would be unfair to say there has not been any progress — the poverty rate has been higher before and there have been some laudable initiatives recently, such as expanded dental coverage for low-income families.

But it is essential the poverty resurgence is quelled before Canadians start paying a bigger price.

What that requires is bolder action in 2024 and beyond — not simply pulling people out of poverty, but preventing them from falling into it in the first place.

To that end, here are some of the changes I want to see.

Social assistance rates, which are far below the poverty line and have not been increased to keep apace with rising costs of living, must be raised.

Even a few hundred extra dollars has been shown to reduce food insecurity and improve quality of living for the poorest Canadians, and this boost, as well as streamlined application processes, would help provide an extra layer of security.

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Living wages should also be implemented in government-regulated workplaces as quickly as possible, and all levels of government must be leaders in providing and incentivizing better training and work opportunities for Canadians who are underpaid and underemployed.

Particular attention must be given to helping those most impacted.

Indigenous persons are the deepest in poverty and, particularly on reserves, are failed by a woeful lack of services and support capacity.

Not only must there be Indigenous-specific poverty reduction strategies factoring in housing, early learning and childcare, they must incorporate broader, sustained efforts to build trust and reconciliation so that Indigenous persons feel comfortable accessing supports and services.

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Finally, while all levels of government must do their part when it comes to housing, the federal government in particular must increase its investments in social housing, which have fallen dramatically since the ’90s.

As we step into 2024, the choices we make will determine whether we continue to witness the erosion of well-being or embark on a route that prioritizes the well-being of all Canadians.

This is a call to action not merely to alleviate poverty and show our resilience, but to move beyond resilience, ensuring that every Canadian can thrive and enjoy a better tomorrow.

Spencer van Vloten is a nationally published writer and community advocate. He is a recipient of the B.C. Medal of Good Citizenship, Vancouver Excellence Award, and was the Rick Hansen Foundation’s Difference Maker of the Year. You can find more of his work at SpencerV.ca or follow him on X at @SpencerVanCity

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