Joe Gunn

October 10, 2011

When you are really sick with an infection, does it make sense to start taking only a half dose of the antibiotics necessary to cure your ailment? Or again, when battling infection, does it make sense to take an antibiotic for half of the time necessary for the full cure to take effect?

Dr. Jeff Turnbull, outgoing president of the Canadian Medical Association, reports that there are 1,000 homeless people in the core of Canada's capital city, where he lives and works. Shockingly, he also holds that the rate of HIV-AIDS infections among that population is higher than in the other part of the world where he practises — sub-Saharan Africa.

"Health is the currency of the wealthy; and the poor pay for poverty with their health," Turnbull complains.

If following the correct prescription is necessary in medical terms, it may also ring true when we consider societal options for eradicating social ills, such as poverty.

At the end of September, the National Council on Welfare (an independent but federally-funded agency) released a report designed to help Canada respond to the persistence of poverty.

Entitled The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty, the 105-page report made the case that Canada needs "an investment approach" devoted to poverty prevention, which could reduce health care and other social costs, as well as lowering poverty rates.


Just as taking too few antibiotics for too short a time may maintain a patient in ill health, so too designing social supports that penalize people in need - by merely maintaining them in poverty - will never cure this social ill. In both cases, the treatment quickly becomes overly expensive, and dangerous in the longer run.

The council reports that a low-end estimate of the cost of poverty in Canada is $24.4 billion.

It would have taken $12.6 billion in 2007 to raise the income of all Canadians above the poverty line. That same year, easily double that amount was spent - while poverty by 2009 actually rose by 0.4 per cent to 9.6 per cent.

Smarter spending is needed. A 2009 study in Calgary, for example, reported that keeping a person in a homeless shelter could cost up to $42,000, while prison or psychiatric hospitals can run much higher (up to $120,000 a year.)

Yet, offering supportive housing to the homeless would only cost $13,000 to $18,000, and affordable housing might only cost $5,000 to $8,000. Nonetheless, even though "the system" makes no economic sense, we discipline and punish those living on low incomes, rather than help them succeed.

The moral case against poverty is well-known to Christians, as is the biblical case. The economic case has also been highlighted in studies, such as this NCW report.

So have you ever wondered, as I have, why governments have refused to eradicate poverty? Or why, as Conservative Senator Hugh Segal puts it, does government minimize social investments?

Rather than merely arguing that governments lack "the political will" to act, let's ask why this is true. Marxists argue that the capitalist system requires a "reserve army of labour" (the poor) in order to depress wages and salaries. Others complain that the public has not adequately engaged politicians on the issues, challenging them to act.

This is unfortunately the case of Canadian faith communities, who profess concern for the poor and gladly carry out a multitude of social programs to serve poverty's victims.

An Interfaith Declaration was released last March, calling for a federal poverty elimination plan. Then the Canadian Council of Churches wrote to party leaders before the May 2 election, stating that the issue of poverty was the key issue in the campaign.

But exit polls (in English Canada at least) suggest that a majority of churchgoers voted to elect the only party that did not include a poverty reduction plan in their platform.


Richard Shillington, a mathematician and researcher at Informetrica, suggests another reason for our inaction. He contrasts our reaction to poverty with how Canadians reacted to the SARS scare. Although one in 10 Canadian kids lives in poverty (one in four aboriginal kids), we haven't acted for change.

But when SARS took the life of a young hockey player, something hit home. Middle class families realized that they could not protect themselves and their own children. They then made it clear that governments needed to act to protect what our families by themselves could not.

Canadians have not moved to eradicate poverty, even after the moral, and now the economic, arguments have been established. For the common good of all, that simply must change.

(Joe Gunn is executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,