Why won’t governments reduce poverty when they know it kills people?

Full article published Nov 23, 2009 by Jean Swanson in her Vancouver Sun blog. Edited by WP for this blog.

Poverty is responsible for more lost years of healthy living in Canada than cancer, about twice as many more, according to a recent Statistics Canada study. This translates into over 11 fewer years of healthy living for men in the poorest income group and almost 10 fewer years for women. At the Carnegie Centre in the Downtown Eastside where I volunteer, these stats are in your face every morning when you come in the building. There’s a little tripod with notices about what’s happening that day at the Centre, and usually there’s an announcement that yet another community member has died and when the memorial is. In the Downtown Eastside about 70 % of the residents live in poverty, some with no income, some with a welfare income that provides a paltry $610 a month, not enough to eat nutritiously and pay rent. Sometimes, in that low income neighbourhood, there are two or three or four memorial notices on the Carnegie tripod at the same time.

Two days after I read about poverty reducing life expectancy, I read that the Thomson family, which controls a number of Canadian media giants, has amassed about $22 billion in wealth. While the rest of us are losing our jobs and taking pay cuts, while services that low income people need are being wiped out because of the recession, the Thomson family’s wealth grew by 19%.

Why do our governments create laws and policies that allow this to happen when people are suffering and dying because of it? The numbers are so huge. My calculator doesn’t have enough space for the zeros in them. So I did the math by hand. What if our tax laws allowed the Thomson family to keep $2 billion of their wealth (enough to provide $40 million each to 50 family members), but took the remaining $20 billion to build 100,000 housing units on city owned land across the country?

We could end homelessness in Canada, and the Thomsons would still have enough left so they wouldn’t have to work for the rest of their lives.

$3.1 mil home at 4707 Belmont Ave (UBC)

Just a few days before this, there was an article in the Vancouver Sun about an unnamed person who is building a $31.5 million home in Pt. Grey. This would be enough money to build 150 homes for homeless people on city-owned land and still leave a nice $1.5 million for a single family home in Vancouver. How fair is it that one family gets a $31.5 million home while thousands in BC are homeless and die sooner because of it? Is it fair that the average pay of the top 100 Canadian CEO’s was 259 times higher than the average wage of a full-time worker? Do we really want a society where government policies allow this gap to more than double, as it has, in less than 10 years? If this trend continues, how great will the gap be in 10 more years? How much younger will the poor die then?

I’m not asking for charity here. Human beings shouldn’t have to rely on charity to meet their basic needs. I’m just trying to show what the numbers mean in concrete terms. This economic system that we live in is so unjust. Statistics Canada, a fairly reputable source, is now saying that human beings are suffering and dying early because of poverty. Yet here in BC people struggle to get by on the lowest minimum wage and pay the highest cost of living in Canada. People are suffering and dying because they have no home and the BC government won’t build housing with its $250 million Housing EndowmentFund. People are suffering and dying because of poverty and the government refuses increase welfare to a livable level. Governments say they have no money but they have taxing power. Why is it so important to keep taxes low for the very rich when it means that the poor die sooner?

Cancer is awful. It’s good to try to figure out how to end it. But now we know the impact of poverty is even worse. We know how to end poverty. We have the means to end poverty. We should be demanding poverty reduction strategies from our provincial and federal governments. ~JS