We are deep into the season of homelessness and hunger; annual appeals for charitable donations to address these problems, and especially to assist children living in poverty, are in full swing.
People across B.C. and Canada are responding, as they always do, with generosity. But there is something wrong with this picture.
We are a rich society, and yet we — and more specifically, our governments, acting on our behalf — are failing to provide the necessaries of life, specifically food and shelter, for many of our fellow citizens, including children and vulnerable adults. Minimum income rates and social-assistance rates, both of which are established by government, are too low to enable people properly to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families.
Yet it is a criminal offence in Canada to fail to provide the necessaries of life. Section 215 of the Criminal Code states that parents, foster parents, guardians or heads of family are under a legal duty to provide the necessaries of life for a child under the age of 16, a spouse or common-law partner, or a person under their charge who is unable to provide themselves with the necessaries of life.
But surely anyone on any form of social assistance, including especially children, is in effect under the charge of government, which provides them with income and thus is effectively their guardian. So arguably the government does have a legal duty, at least to this group, to provide the necessaries of life.
Legal duty or not, are our governments absolved of their moral duty to provide the necessaries of life? Yet that is how they behave — as if they have neither legal nor moral duty.
Food banks and homelessness have not always been with us, although child poverty has been an ongoing issue. The first food bank in Canada opened in Edmonton in 1981, and by 1987 there was a national association of food banks. Today, Food Banks Canada notes that it “works with 550 food banks and more than 3,000 food programs across Canada.”
Homelessness became evident soon after. In a 2014 paper from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, the authors noted that “homelessness emerged as a significant problem — in fact, as a crisis — in the 1990s, with the withdrawal of the federal government’s investment in affordable housing.”
It was also in the 1980s that the scourge of child poverty emerged as an important political issue, with the House of Commons voting unanimously in 1989 to end child poverty by 2000. But despite some initial success, B.C.’s child-poverty rate rose from 15.5 per cent in 1989 to a high of 25.3 per cent in 2000, according to the 2016 Child Poverty Report Card from First Call. While somewhat improved, it is still much too high, with one in five children living in poverty in 2014, most of them “in families with parents who work in the paid labour force.”
But in spite of the prevalence of hunger, homelessness and child poverty, the B.C. government has done little to increase the minimum wage or social assistance rates in the past 15 years. After being held at a low rate for years, the minimum wage increased to a meagre $10.85 per hour in September. First Call notes that “a single parent with one child, working full time, full year at the new minimum wage, wouldn’t even reach the 2014 poverty line.”
Meanwhile, First Call also notes, social-assistance rates in B.C. have not increased since 2007, other than a recent — and much disputed — increase in disability rates this year. As a result, adjusted for inflation, welfare incomes have declined since 1989 for both single-parent and couple families with children, leaving them all well below the poverty line.
By failing to deal with hunger and homelessness and — in B.C. — maintaining both the minimum-wage and social-assistance and disability rates below the poverty line, our governments are in effect ensuring that some of their citizens, to whom they surely have a duty of care, are unable to obtain the necessaries of life.
They should count themselves lucky they aren’t parents, because if they were, they could be facing a criminal charge.
Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.