JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Joe Gunn

October 14, 2013

The ever-surprising Pope Francis has been calling for institutional reform in Roman Catholic Church structures and practice. Francis is trying to birth what he calls a missionary Church that reaches out to the poor, youth, elderly and even non-believers. How will we Canadians take up his challenge?

On Oct. 17, 1987, 100,000 people gathered in Paris to honour the victims of extreme violence, hunger and poverty. The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty was born, and was officially marked by the United Nations in 1993. Today, Oct. 17 is observed in many countries - including Canada.

Many international aid agencies, like Development and Peace, will pause on this day to take stock of international efforts to end poverty.

The World Bank has advised that some progress has indeed been made in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (signed in 2000 with a target for achievement by 2015): The proportion of households in developing countries below the extreme poverty line (now measured as $1.25 per person per day) has declined from 52 per cent in 1980, to 43 per cent in 1990, 34 per cent in 1999, and 21 per cent in 2010.

DEATH RATE DROPPED

As well, UNICEF reported this month that the mortality rate of children under five in Africa declined from 177 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990, to 155 per 1,000 births in 2000, to 98 per 1,000 in 2012.

These numbers are still far too high, but the trend shows that we can no longer argue that nothing can be done to address extreme poverty and deprivation. Indeed, the United Nations General Assembly working group on global goals recently concluded that "eradicating poverty in a generation is an ambitious but feasible goal."

On Oct. 17, Citizens for Public Justice will publish a report highlighting poverty trends in Canada. The statistics reveal that after spiking during the height of the 2008-09 recession, according to the after-tax Low Income Cut-Off, poverty is at its lowest level on record.

Depending on the measure used, anywhere from 8.8 to 12.6 per cent of people in Canada were poor in 2011.

Yet when compared to other developed countries, Canada's poverty rate is high - we're 24th out of 34 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

SINGLE, UNEMPLOYED

But the general poverty rate only tells part of the story. Many of today's poor are those who have jobs and increasingly are singles between the ages of 18 and 64. And the current unemployment rate for Canadians between the ages of 15 and 24 is over 14 per cent (that is, double the official unemployment rate and showing no decline over the past two years).

What's more, the poor are very poor, with incomes well below the poverty line.

Income security programs for low-income children and seniors have demonstrated that when government makes it a priority, poverty can be reduced. Canada can certainly do better.

What is the Christian response?

Even according to the lowest commonly accepted measure, 2.96 million people in Canada are poor. Altogether, 3.8 million Canadians cannot access the food they need. Close to one million people use food banks each month. Food banks are not a sufficient response.

That's why Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada (www.dignityforall.ca) is organizing 10 events with local anti-poverty organizations, in places like Toronto, Calgary and Regina, on Oct. 17.

CHEW ON THIS

These organizations want to know why Canada's Parliament, Senate and the United Nations have all called for the federal government to develop a national plan to end poverty - and yet the government has refused to act. Volunteers will be handing out lunch bags to passersby and politicians with the words "Chew on This!" printed on the outside, and an apple and a postcard inside.

The postcard will feature statistics and information about food insecurity and an option to sign and send the card to Parliament, calling for a national poverty elimination strategy. This action is meant to request that the federal government "step up to the plate" to address hunger and poverty in our land.

On Oct. 17 volunteers from my parish will be out on the street in front of Parliament, passing out lunch bags and calling for change. Only then will they return to our parish's Supper Table to serve the 150 hungry people who come to our doors.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)