(Published in The Vancouver Sun on December 20, 2012)
As leaders in communities of spirit and faith, we are concerned about the new normal in our society. Sights that should shock us to our core are hardly noticed anymore: a tiny, elderly woman rummaging through the garbage; a man sleeping on the sidewalk, shuddering from the cold; a young woman begging with a toddler clinging to her leg. At some point, as a people, we stopped noticing and caring. Now is the time to notice and care again.
BC has the highest poverty rate in Canada and, before this year, had the highest rate of child poverty for eight years in a row. Poverty here largely affects the working poor. Single mothers, Indigenous people, recent immigrants, refugees, and people with disabilities are especially vulnerable. More than half a million British Columbians lived in poverty in 2010, the most recent year for which we have statistics.
The gap between the rich and the poor is also growing. A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) confirmed that the income gap in Canada is at a record high, which places Canada 26th out of 34 countries. Within Canada, BC has the largest gap between rich and poor.
The poverty and inequality that such statistics represent is altering and distorting our society. In 2009, British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett found that virtually every marker of wellbeing in wealthy societies – from wellness, academic achievement and life expectancy to illiteracy, violence and mental illness – is affected not by how rich the society is, but rather by how equal it is. Wellbeing for everyone improves with equality, whereas societies with a bigger gap between the rich and poor experience more social ills, affecting everyone, including the well-off.
The lack of comprehensive action from our provincial and federal governments suggests they have not heeded these findings. The OECD report confirms that poverty and inequality in Canada reflect intentional choices by governments. Prior to the mid-1990s, our system of taxation and social spending was as effective as in Nordic countries, stabilizing 70 per cent of the rise in inequality. Since then, the positive effects of redistribution have declined by thirty percent. Current strategies are intensifying inequality instead of easing it.
These choices flow from a belief system that holds economic growth as the ultimate value and believes a prosperous business community produces growth that trickles down through society. Unfortunately, as the OECD secretary-general points out, the trickle down of wealth to the rest of society is just not happening. The theories behind the policies are “not working.” In fact, according to reports from the International Monetary Fund and the Conference Board of Canada, inequality can diminish economic growth.
Still, governments continue to invest public resources in efforts to entice business activity to come or stay here. They provide corporations with infrastructure, tax concessions, subsidies, favourable labour policies, and access to the natural resources of the commons. As corporate incentives expand, funds for targeted benefits and essential services shrink. The resulting re-allocation of public wealth into private wealth has measurable negative effects on equality, wellbeing, natural habitat and economic stability for all of society, and means poverty for those on the lower tiers.
The OECD suggests remedies that echo the proposals of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition. Both recommend increased investment in integrated approaches to education, starting with quality childcare and early learning and continuing into adult years; well-conceived income support policies and government benefits for low-income groups; and freely accessible and high quality public services in health and family care.
To have the most impact, these changes should be part of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy with legislated targets and timelines. B.C. is one of the last provinces without one. Other places are saving lives and benefiting their economies by tackling poverty directly, and are simultaneously improving the long-term health and wellbeing of whole societies. As leaders and participants in communities of spirit, we believe it’s time our province did too.
Instead of focusing on economic growth at any cost, we need to focus on the health and sustainability of our society by bolstering the caring sector and upholding the strengths we need to face the social and environmental challenges ahead. We seek leaders with the vision and courage to share with citizens the work of crafting an effective caring culture. The work of caring for one another is the work of healing persons, communities and our natural world. This is the kind of richness we really need.
The holiday season is a time of year when our hearts are strongly moved by generosity. We give because we care about those who would otherwise go without. In fact, B.C. is one of the most generous provinces in Canada if we compare charitable donations across the country. But, now the holidays are over, consider how much more powerful and long-lasting the gifts of justice and equality would be. Making sure that everyone can have an adequate standard of living is the kind of gift that truly keeps on giving.
We can give this gift together. Let’s make it happen.
Louise Mangan, President, InterSpiritual Centre of Vancouver Society
Erik Bjorgan, Pastor, Deo Lutheran Church, Salmon Arm
Christine Boyle, Spirited Social Change, Vancouver
Pastor Carol J. Dennison, Faith Lutheran Church, Powell River
Dave Diewert, Streams of Justice, Vancouver
Susan Grace Draper, Faith in Action, Victoria
Steven Epperson, Minister, Vancouver Unitarian Church
Steven Faraher-Amidon, South Fraser Unitarian Church
Gary Gaudin, Ordained Minister, South Arm United Church, Richmond
Reverend Doctor Murray Groom, Minister, Sylvan United Church, Vancouver Island
Jonquil Hallgate, Surrey Urban Mission
Joyce Harris, Sisters of St. Ann, Victoria
Marianna Harris, Chair, Faithful Public Witness Community, Vancouver Burrard Presbytery, United Church of Canada
Reverend Doctor Sarah L. Harris, Director, Compassion Globally, Vancouver
Laura Holland, a founding member of the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network (AWAN), Vancouver
Hans Kratz, Chair, KAIROS Parksville/Qualicum
Hereditary Chief Phil Lane Jr., Four Worlds International Institute
Margaret Marquardt, Co-Chair of Eco-Justice Unit, Anglican Diocese of New Westminster
Ric Matthews, Executive Minister, New Way Community, Vancouver
Rev. Dr. Gregory Mohr, Bishop, BC Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada
Barry Morris, Longhouse Council of Native Ministry
Reverend Doctor Harold Munn, Anglican Mentor-in-Residence, Vancouver School of Theology
Barry Nelson, Cathedral of Mary Immaculate, Development & Peace Committee, Nelson
Sergio Petrucci, Prince George Diocesan Council for the Canadian Catholic Organization of Development and Peace
Sandra Severs, Deputy Executive Minister, New Way Community, Vancouver
Mary Murray Shelton, Minister, Centre for Spiritual Living, Vancouver
Keith Simmonds, United Church Minister, Trail
Social Justice Committee, Pilgrim United Church, Colwood
Social Responsibility Committee, First Unitarian Church of Victoria
Eleanor Stebner, J.S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities, SFU
Rebecca Tobias, Global Trustee, United Religions Initiative, Vancouver
Peggy Wilmot, Faith in Action, Victoria