Charles Dickens, in his famous novel Christmas Carol, writes of a visit by two charity-minded men to the office of Ebenezer Scrooge. The words of Dickens follow, with notes from Toronto, Ontario and Canada in 2012 in italics.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and Destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.
Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank reports a total of 1,123,500 visits to food charities in the Greater Toronto area in 2012 – up 18% from the recession of 2008. The Ontario Association of Food Banks reports 412,998 individuals lined up at food banks in March of 2012, with Food Banks Canada reporting 882,188 people used food banks across the country in that same month.
Toronto Housing Connections reports that there are 87,638 households on the city’s affordable housing wait list as of November 2012. That’s an all-time record. In fact, the wait list has set a new record every month since the recession of 2008. Those households include a total of 161,886 women, men and children.
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
There are about 38,000 adults in Canada’s prisons in 2010/11, the latest year for which numbers are available from Statistics Canada. The prison population is growing, even though Canada’s crime rate has been dropping since the early 1990s.
“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
Toronto’s homeless shelter system is projected to have1,416,766 bednights (one woman, man or child in one bed for one night) during 2012 – an increase of 61,490 bednights from 2011 (that’s a 4.5% increase in one year).
“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
Toronto police issued 15,324 panhandling tickets under the Safe Streets Act to homeless people in 2010 – an increase of more than 2000% since the year 2000. York University Prof Stephen Gaetz estimates that police have spent more than $1 million issuing the tickets.
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
Poverty and income inequality have been on the rise in Canada since the mid-1990s, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It notes that Canada cut poverty in half from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, but the positive trend has been reversed as governments in Canada have steadily cut social expenditures, including income transfers, and public services, such as housing. The Conference Board of Canada in its global inequality survey also confirms that inequality is growing rapidly in Canada in recent years.
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned — they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
Government investments in affordable housing have been on a steady downward slide since the early 1990s. The erosion in federal housing investments reversed with a $2 billion investment in affordable housing in the 2009 federal stimulus budget, but that funding was ‘terminated’ in 2011, when the federal government made a 39% cut in housing investments in one year. The federal affordable housing initiative (which funds new homes) and the federal homelessness strategy (which funds transitional housing and supports for the homeless) are both scheduled to expire in 2014.
When it comes to public social expenditures (cash benefits and public services) Canada ranks towards the bottom of the league of the richest countries of the world, and below the average among OECD countries. Canada is tied with the US at 25th among 35 OECD countries for overall public social expenditures. When it comes to family benefits, Canada is tied with US in 32nd spot among 34 OECD countries.
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
The research evidence is clear and compelling – low income, poor housing and social exclusion are all strongly linked to poor health and premature death. The Wellesley Institute’s Street Health Report provides the evidence that homeless people have a heavier burden of poor health that those who are housed. Toronto Public Health’s Unequal City report provides a chilling catalogue of the devastating health burden of poverty. It notes that health inequalities are responsible for almost 1,100 premature deaths annually in Toronto.
The austerity agenda continues to grip the federal, provincial and municipal governments when it comes to necessary spending on health, housing, incomes, education and other social priorities. The lingering impact of the 2008 recession continues to put pressure on the diminishing social expenditures. The cost of the austerity agenda is measured in the growing burden of poverty, inequality poor health and premature death.
Individual acts of kindness and charity are always appreciated, but unless the root causes of poverty and inequality are tackled, and funding for social expenditures is raised to adequate levels, the horrors of Victorian England will continue to play out in Toronto of 2013.