B.C. VIEWS: Time to enrich poverty debate

A summer dwelling at McLeod Lake in northeastern B.C.

A summer dwelling at McLeod Lake in northeastern B.C.

VICTORIA – A couple of readers responded indignantly to this column’s recent reference to the NDP “trumpeting distorted statistics” about child poverty.

I was referring to the annual ritual that goes on here at the legislature, where an activist coalition named First Call issues its report that damns B.C. for the worst child poverty in Canada. The NDP pounds away for days, crying “shame” and demanding that the B.C. Liberal government produce a plan to eliminate child poverty, with annual goals.

The “distorted statistics” I referred to are in a regular survey by Statistics Canada called the Low Income Cutoff, or LICO. This survey uses an arbitrary line, currently around $44,000 a year for a family of four, beneath which people are deemed to have “low income.” StatsCan points out in every LICO report that it is a relative measure and not a poverty line, but the activists ignore that.

West Vancouver-Capilano B.C. Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan, a former bank economist, has taken this issue on. In November he published a math-heavy discussion paper called Child Poverty in West Vancouver: Fact or Fiction?

When I spoke to Sultan last week, he said the weakness of LICO is easy to demonstrate. For one thing, StatsCan uses the same income level across Canada, without regard to the huge variations in cost of housing or other factors.

The LICO ignores provincial services such as dental care for social assistance clients, because it’s not income. Sultan estimates that about 10 per cent of the B.C. budget is now spent on low-income supports, including rent subsidies.

Not surprisingly, Sultan found that low income correlates mainly with single mothers, immigrants and aboriginal people on reserves.

More surprising is that communities with higher levels of Employment Insurance and welfare recipients are not the communities with the most low-income people. Sultan says this suggests these programs are effective.

Another surprise is that aboriginal people do just as well as other people once they are off reserve, despite the relatively low educational achievement we hear so much about.

Sultan, who taught business at Harvard University for nine years, cites a recent book by Harvard historian Niall Ferguson called Civilization: The West and the Rest. Ferguson identifies six ingredients in what he calls “the secret sauce of Western civilization” and its economic success.

They are competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Sultan says that list explains the difference between conditions on and off B.C. reserves.

Sultan agrees that the political pressure to raise the minimum wage is irreversible. But like most economists, he says that will reduce the number of low-end jobs. And he is sarcastic about the NDP’s demands for government-imposed solutions: “All we need to do is pass a law and everybody will get richer overnight!”

Helping single mothers get back to the workforce is his “personal cause at the moment,” and he says the new full-day kindergarten is a big step in the right direction.

Subsidized daycare is another option B.C. has available.

“I know in Quebec they have a very generous scheme, which apparently the rest of Canada pays for,” Sultan said.

Readers who demand evidence that disputes the First Call finding might start with Sultan’s discussion paper. It’s posted on his website. It ends with a quote from another noted social activist, a fellow named Jesus Christ: “The poor shall always be with us.”

No one has proven him wrong in the past 2,000 years or so.

Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.

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