Government Response to Report

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, my question is to the Chair of the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology. A recent report from that committee’s Subcommittee on Cities entitled In From the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness contained 74 recommendations based on 35 hearings, 5 round tables and site visits to 20 agencies in 9 cities across Canada. In all, the committee heard testimony from 175 witnesses, some of whom were homeless or living in poverty themselves.

Having participated in the committee that produced report, I would like to ask the chair of this committee to acquaint the chamber with the government’s response to the report and its recommendations.

Hon. Art Eggleton: Honourable senators, the report was unanimously adopted by the Senate on April 29, 2010. In accordance with the rules, the government was to respond within 150 days. It did so. We received the response about a week ago and it was tabled on our first sitting day.

The government response, to me, was disappointing. It did not address the 74 recommendations directly. On the positive side, it thanked the committee for its work, it recognized the considerable effort that had been put into the report, and it said the government would take the report under advisement. However, considering the severity of the situation in this country with respect to poverty, housing and homelessness, a more substantive response would have been better.

However, I must say a couple of things about the report’s recommendations that the government has acted on. One of the prime examples of good, promising practices and community organizations is one called Pathways to Education, and we said in our report that community-based programs like that one should be spread across the country, and that they really do have application in other locations. The government provided, in the last budget, $20 million to do exactly that.

I am also advised that the Minister of Finance has announced an indexing for the Working Income Tax Benefit. Again, that indexing will assist the working poor and help to make work pay. However, so many other things need to be done.

The report has about 20 pages describing what the government spends money on now in this area. There is no doubt that the federal government spends a lot of money with respect to these issues. All levels of government spend a lot of money. Our study found that transfers to income support for people are about $150 billion a year. The issue that is lost in those 20 pages, and the issue that we highlighted substantially in our report, is that this spending is not getting the job done. This comment is not a specific criticism of the federal government of any political colour. No government is bringing people out of poverty effectively. People are entrapped in poverty. We spend a lot of money, but we are not seeing results.

The essence of the report in that regard is to say, it is not a question of spending more money but a question of spending the money more wisely, efficiently and effectively. I hope the government, as it proceeds to look further at our recommendations, as they say they will in the days ahead, will bear that point in mind.

The other thing that needs to be borne in mind is that poverty is not only a moral issue. It is not only a moral imperative that we do something about people living in poverty. Ten per cent of the people in this country are living in poverty. There are 800,000 children living in poverty. The poverty rate for Aboriginal women, for example, is about 40 per cent. There are staggering numbers of people who are suffering in a rich country, a country that should be able to deal with these kinds of issues.

Poverty costs all of us. In addition to the moral issues, there are economic issues. Don Drummond, Judith Maxwell and James Milway prepared a report last year that indicated poverty costs taxpayers some $30 billion a year. That is more than half the federal deficit. Think of all the things we could do if we cut down on poverty and saved much of that $30 billion that all taxpayers pay.

The other issue the government needs to bear in mind as it goes forward is the demographic changes in the country. The aging population will lead to a shrinking workforce. That shrinking workforce means that in another 20 years we will have about half as many people working, paying taxes, paying for pensions and paying for health care as we have today. We all have to face this serious issue in the coming years.

Oddly enough, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce came out with a report at the same time that said there are people in our population who are under-represented in the workforce. They named Aboriginals; the disabled; older workers, people in their 50s and early 60s; and new immigrants. Those people are the same ones, along with lone parents, lone mothers in most cases, that our report, adopted by the Senate, identified as people in poverty. It turns out the people languishing in poverty are the same people we need to fill jobs in the future to meet this demographic challenge.

There are compelling economic as well as moral arguments to address the issue of poverty. I hope the government will take those arguments into consideration as it looks further at the recommendations adopted unanimously by the Senate.