Hyer on the Hill – The New Working Poor


THUNDER BAY – There was a time in this country when a job was considered a route out of poverty. Not anymore. Over the past 25 years, the labour market has changed dramatically. More and more, Canadians end up in jobs that are part-time or short-term, with low wages and few benefits, if any. In fact, 40% of all jobs in Canada are now part-time or temporary. The working landscape has changed dramatically in just one generation.

In a new documentary on Canada’s working poor soon to be screened locally, we meet Vicki Baier, a single mother in small-town Ontario. Despite working at the LCBO for 12 years, she is considered a casual worker, with no job security or benefits. When Vicki is struck with breast cancer, she cannot afford to take time off and lose wages. As a result, she schedules chemotherapy treatments during her lunch hours. With no health or disability benefits, she must rely on the financial support of her parents to make ends meet.

Sadly, this is becoming more common. In 2006, almost 2.4 million Canadians were in low-paying jobs that made less than $10 an hour. This group was hit the hardest by the recession: 1 in 4 of them lost their jobs. As many of these workers were considered “casual,” they did not receive Employment Insurance. In fact, nearly half of the unemployed did not receive the support of EI in the midst of the recession – revealing gaping holes in Canada’s social safety net.

Worse, the child poverty rate mirrored this rise in unemployment. It likely rose to at least 12% in 2009, an increase of 160,000 children living in poverty in Canada compared to two years earlier. It makes a mockery of Parliament’s resolution in 1989 to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.

But there are ways that these problems can be tackled. Some were advanced by Senators Art Eggleton and Hugh Segal, who recently led a two-year study on poverty in Canada. Their report, which came out earlier this year, recognized the rise of the working poor. Among their recommendations to help this group is to extend the current Working Income Tax Benefit, which supplements the wages of people earning very low incomes.

Another important step is investing in a national early childhood education program. As I wrote in a previous column on just this topic, it is high time Canada had such a program …and if we had a dollar for every time it was promised, we could easily pay for it. Nation-wide daycare and early learning would support working parents, particularly financially vulnerable groups like single-parent and low-income families. It would also give our children the quality care they deserve. Such a daycare system isn’t cheap – it may cost in the range of $5 billion – but as many studies have shown, it would generate much larger returns for our economy. Certainly better dividends than $50 billion in recent spending on corporate tax cuts have given us.

In wake of the recession, it is tempting to shy away from initiatives that would require substantial investment. But there is also an enormous price tag associated with poverty itself that has often been ignored. Poverty leads to increased costs in health, crime and social assistance. Ontario alone loses approximately $13.1 billion each year due to the social costs of poverty.

It’s these costs that must be considered whenever we budget poverty-reduction programs. Until the savings generated by those programs are accounted for, we aren’t being honest about their true costs and benefits. But just as important for Canada’s working poor, finances alone should not dictate our actions. After all, as TD Bank economist Don Drummond says, “Poverty is a personal tragedy for everybody it inflicts. That alone justifies action.”

Bruce Hyer, MP

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