Fighting poverty with the help of statistics and stories

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Poverty in numbers

Over the past 15 to 20 years, there have been significant declines in the support provided by social programs, such as Employment Insurance and social assistance (or welfare) in Canada. It is getting harder and harder to qualify for programs like EI, especially in times of economic crisis, and that is often the time when the assistance is most needed.

 In October 2009, during the recent recession, only 51% of the unemployed qualified for EI. It took a long time to even peak at 51% after the rampant job losses in the fall of 2008, and it has since gone down below 50%. In the early 1990s, even during tough economic times, coverage was around 80%. Meanwhile, social assistance rates are very low compared to costs of living that beneficiaries find themselves trapped in poverty, unable to get out.

These are some of the harsh realities Richard Shillington, a policy analyst with Informetrica, shared at CPJ’s Annual General Meeting on May 27, 2010.

Shillington showed comprehensive statistical evidence for the decline of social programs and the growing gap between the rich and middle and low income Canadians, especially in the last decade and a half. The evidence Shillington presented speaks to the need for the government to take definitive action to strengthen and uphold the social safety net – programs that were established in the aftermath of the Great Depression – to protect Canadians from falling into such poverty.

In the meantime, Canada still does not have an official poverty measure, and Shillington pointed to the trend of shifting to measures that provide lower poverty rates. The Low Income Cut-offs, calculated by Statistics Canada, are one of the most used measures. They measure poverty based on income, family size, location and expenditures on basic needs. Originally, LICO was calculated before tax returns and credits, but now, the after-tax income measure is predominantly used. This manipulation of the measurement lowered the poverty rate significantly, without any changes actually taking place in the lives of the poor.

Statistical analysis of poverty in Canada, like Shillington’s, is very valuable to the work of CPJ and similar organizations. But, as Shillington pointed out, the potential for manipulation of data for the purpose of making certain points is a troubling trend in Canada, even when the data is so clear.

For this reason, stories of people struggling with poverty are important. They put a human face to the statistics. And despite what people say about decreasing poverty levels, the stories of people in poverty speak for themselves.

Poverty in stories

After Shillington’s presentation, CPJ’s Karri Munn-Venn offered a response, offering stories of people living in poverty and the implications for all Canadians. Behind every statistic – every Canadian that does not qualify for EI, or every family who is struggling to get by on social assistance – there is a story. Behind the data there are people.

The stories of people living in poverty provide inspiration to promote justice in the world. All people are made in the image of God, and therefore need to be treated with dignity.

At the start of the meeting, Adam Snook, CPJ’s Theology Intern, lead us in a prayer he wrote called, I wonder what the Spirit is up to in all of this? It is a cry to God for all the injustices we see in our world and in our own country. We are troubled when we see children going hungry, parents struggling to find care for their children, people trapped in poverty with no way out, and the selfish motivations that often govern our society. But it also calls us to remember the hope that we have in Christ, asking God for the strength to continue this work.

Pulling the pieces together

Our work at CPJ is to bring change through government policies. The personal stories inspire and speak strongly to the Biblical foundations of the call to promote justice. But so do the statistics, because they highlight potential policy options for promoting dignity for all Canadians. For example, investing more resources in strengthening EI, social assistance and other programs is one way to reinforce the social safety net.

The recent numbers, illustrated by Richard Shillington, recent research by CPJ and others, reveal troubling trends that motivate us to keep working until poverty is fully addressed. We are equally motivated by the stories behind these numbers and trends, and our call from God to act justly and preserve the dignity of everyone in our communities, nation and world.

Through statistics and stories, our hope is to enable real change in Canada, and continue our calling to promote dignity for all.

Rebekah Sears is CPJ’s former policy intern.

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