Session Notes: Putting Social Policy Back on the Agenda

Presentation to the United Way
(Marcel Lauzière's Speaking Notes)

  • Be rich. Rich people live longer than poor people and are healthier at every stage in life.
  • Poor jobs equal poor health.
  • People who are homeless aren't healthy. People who live in substandard, overcrowded, cold and damp housing are not healthy. If you want to find those with the worst health, go look in the worst parts of the housing stock. Or worse, look to the streets of our cities.

Now you could think that these statements were being made by the Canadian Council on Social Development or by many of you here in the room. In fact, these quotes are taken from a recent op-ed written by Roy Romanow and published recently in the Globe and Mail.

None of this is new to most of you. But these statements take on such a different resonance when they come from someone like Romanow who is now considered as one the most authoritive voices in health policy. And they are a reminder that the societal issues that we are so concerned with (some of which I will be talking about this morning), have a much better chance of being addressed if we recognize the intimate interrelationships and connections that exist between social policy and health policy, but also between social policy and economic policy.

Romanow's statements that I have just quoted are a useful backdrop for what I will be talking about this morning, and hopefully for much of what you will be talking about over the next two days. Among other things, I was asked to talk about socio-economic trends to help set the context for the conference. So I will be doing that by referring predominantly to the latest Census release on income of Canadians.

I will do this because the latest numbers that have come out from Statistics Canada tell a powerful if somewhat frightening story (in fact they tell at least two major stories) that we need to be aware of. From this analysis I'll suggest actions that we should be thinking about.

The latest data (released just a few weeks ago) offer a disturbing snapshot of Canadian society. The data confirms what many of us have been saying for some time now: Income polarization and disparity is on the rise in Canada. Indeed the gap between the most affluent and the poor is increasing at an alarming rate.

Let me give you a few examples: For those at the top of the ladder -- where families bring home upwards to $100 000 a year -- incomes boomed over the last decade, For the rest, the last decade saw at best modest advances, at worst, slippage.

Incomes for those in the middle of the ladder - $46 000 to $65 000 per year -- have remained virtually static, while those just below them in the $28 000 to $46 000 range have actually slipped downward by roughly $350 a year.

The bottom 10% in Canada, with incomes under $19 000 saw an annual increase of about $81, in a decade! Just to put things in perspective, that's less than what the average CEO spends on a round of golf! The 10 % of families with the highest incomes in 2000 received $18 for every $1 of income for families with the lowest 10% of incomes. These ratios are even more dramatic in some larger cities where inequalities are greatest: in Toronto that ratio is $27 to $1 In Ottawa fortunately, the ratio is not quite as dramatic, but it still represents a $17 to $1 ratio.

For Canada's latest wave of immigrants, the news couldn't be bleaker. Not only did they start off making less than their counterparts of earlier generations, but they continued to lose ground. After 10 years, they are still significantly behind other Canadians and behind where previous generations of immigrants were, after living here over a decade. And their children are more likely to be living in poverty. These data are taken from the latest census and they help to confirm what we already knew about wealth disparity. According to The Survey on Financial Security (Statistics Canada), wealth is defined as a family's assets minus its debts, with assets including such items as houses, cars, stocks and bonds. Assets are said to be the key to a family's future, while income represents how a family is coping now. The wealth of the poorest 20% of couples with children under 18 went down by 51.4% between 1984 and 1999, whereas that of the wealthiest 20% of couples increased by 42.7%. That's the trend.

The wealth gap in this country is staggering. Put that together with what we know about income and we end up with a truly bleak picture.

The second story that the Census release is telling us is that we have been unable as a country to tackle poverty in any meaningful way. The economic boom of the last part of the decade has clearly not benefited most Canadians, and it has failed to put any real dent in poverty rates and in particular in child poverty rates. It's interesting to remind ourselves that in 1989 a resolution was unanimously adopted by the House of Commons. This is how it read:

"This House seeks to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000."

Our poverty rates are higher today than they were in 1989.

Moreover, in his reply to the Speech of the Throne in January 2001 (only two years ago) the Prime Minister said the following:

"We are determined to help families break out of the poverty trap. To reverse the cycle of dependency. To help parents realize their hopes and their dreams for their children. We cannot afford the costs, moral, human and economic of child poverty. We must find new and better ways to promote opportunity and to ensure that the basic needs of all are met."

So it's not as if our leaders are not aware. But there is a real disconnect between our rhetoric and our actions. We don't seem to be able to make any progress. At the end of the day, I think that what we lack the courage to truly admit to ourselves that this is happening in one of the richest countries in the world.

A few years ago, the Canadian Council on Social Development produced the Urban Poverty report, a major study of poverty in Canadian cities using the 1996 Census data. When the report came out, there was much media attention around it and critics came out swinging, saying that the high poverty rates that we were reporting were simply not credible. Why? Because these numbers stemmed from difficult economic times, and that we were now in an economic boom.

They said: "wait till the next Census data come out, you'll see that poverty rates will have come down substantially because of the economic recovery. They have too, they said, it's only common sense." In other words, don't worry, be happy!

Well guess what, the latest Census numbers are out, and the critics were wrong. Despite the very strong economic recovery of the last years, poverty levels in Canada remain as high as a decade ago.

These numbers are dramatic because they tell the story of what has happened in the best of economic times. The strong recovery that we have witnessed here in Canada in the last few years has not been sufficient, far from it, to reverse the profoundly disturbing trend towards greater income inequality. On the contrary, the gap has grown.

Any way you want to look at it, the latest Census is a wake up call for Canada. Let's get our collective heads out of the sand. We seem to be drifting ever closer to emulating a US style high risk society.

What do you think will happen when we eventually hit another recession? And we will.

The last decade was a lost decade for social development. We need to take social policy and our social programs much more seriously.

There is an analogy to be made here with our concerns and fears about our health care system A few years ago as we began to realize that our healthcare system was in real trouble, we demanded action from our governments.

They responded.

They conducted studies, they launched provincial and royal commissions and they made substantial new investments. Moreover, the media took a real interest in this.

And while there are still substantial challenges to be addressed, we are at least talking about it. We are moving forward.

What the Census results are telling us is that we need to start doing the same thing for social policy in this country. Remember what Romanow is saying. It doesn't make sense to want to tackle our healthcare issues without also addressing our social challenges.

So where can we start?

The first thing is to admit that we have a problem. I've talked about that. Hopefully the recent Census data will help us get our heads out of the sand.

However in the meantime, there is a key instrument that could help us moderate these disturbing trends that I have been talking about.

It's the multi-billion dollar Canada Health and Social Transfer (CHST). This is money that goes from the federal government to provinces and territories to cover social assistance and social services, post-secondary education and health care. While Canadians are increasingly aware of the health transfer and how it works, there is very little awareness, if any, of the social transfer.

As a result of the new bilateral accord on health spending agreed to after the Romanow Commission, the health part of the CHST is about to be split off from the social transfer. We will now know where the $23 billion-plus in health money is going, and that's a good thing.

But what will happen to the more than $14.5 billion targeted for social spending and higher education?

Given what the latest Census is telling us and given that the transfer payments are being looked at, isn't this an opportune time to open a debate on how we invest in social policy.

The provinces spend the social transfer money as they see fit. Perhaps this is fine, but let's get some transparency into the system so that Canadians can actually see how the dollars are spent. After all, who can be against transparency?

And why only 14.5 billion? If the federal government has recognized the importance of increasing the health transfer, would it not be relevant to do the same for the social transfer?

One of the problems around social policy however, is that we simply don't talk about it. It's not on our governments' radar screen, it's not on the radar screens of our media and it won't be until we, as Canadians, demand that it be there. We need to get a debate going. A debate akin to the one around health care.

We should be as scandalized about line-ups at food banks as we are about emergency room line-ups. We should be as concerned about waiting lists for social housing as we are for waiting lists for surgeries. In other words, it's not just a matter of money. In fact it would be a serious mistake to think that money is the only ingredient. More importantly it's about having a vision for where we want to go and what kind of society we want to leave to our children.

We rarely think about social policy in a holistic fashion. And this is where I would suggest we begin the debate. Why not think about social policy as an architecture, as a framework or a blue print for the future.

So while this debate could be sparked by the social transfer payments, it should in fact make us stop and rethink how we actually do social policy. How our actions and investments are connected and work together or don't work together. To pay for welfare, but stop building social housing, is not an effective way to support low-income Canadians. To demand that mothers on welfare get job training but not fund affordable daycare so they can work, makes no sense. Yet such disconnects are common. Why? Because there is no framework, no architecture, to bring it all together. While we have made some new investments on the social front (new money for childcare, new money for social housing although timid, the strengthening of the NCB), our actions have been mostly piece meal and fragmented.

These are important and key investments that have been made in recent years. But we need to go further and more importantly, we need to do things differently. Let's be more coherent about how we spend, about how our policies and programs are inter connected. Thinking in terms of an architecture for social development I think can be extremely useful.

The metaphor that comes to mind when I think of an architecture is that of a house. Before building the house, we need to assess what our needs are, what are the new risks, the new elements that we want to plan for (e.g. globalization, transformation of the family, the restructuring of the labour market (it's not enough to have a job, Canadians need good jobs, and they need the education to get those job), our aging society, our increasingly multicultural reality etc.).

Second, before the house goes up, we need to ensure a strong foundation. We are fortunate in Canada because we already have many elements of this foundation, institutions that were built in the postwar era (old age pension, employment insurance, Medicare etc). But we need to strengthen them. There are cracks, but we can work with this and strengthen the foundation.

Then we need to draw the rooms, figure out how they are going to be connected together, which room will come first. We may not build all of the house at once, but at least we will have a blueprint that will guide our investments for the future. Canadians with a sense of where we are going.

This is what we need to get on the public agenda.

The CCSD in collaboration with United Way Canada and the coalition of National Voluntary Organizations have been trying to grapple with this for some time now.

We strongly believe that the voluntary sector can play a key role through collective effort to put social development on the agenda in the way that I have been talking about. I don't believe that the leadership is going to come from our governments. I think it's by voluntary sector working together/sharing our strengths that we will be able to spark the debate that is so needed in this country.

The CCSD is currently drafting what could be an architecture for social development for the years to come. At minimum, I hope our project will spark some real debate and debate is what we need.

I hope to be able to share the results of our work on this architecture with many of you here in Ottawa and across the country in the coming months. And I hope that our work will help mobilize Canadians around social development. In the meantime, let's not forget about the social transfer and let us not let our governments off the hook.

Thank you.


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