Entering my bank this past week, my eyes were drawn to the huge ad that greeted me: "Enjoy more of what you deserve these holidays."
I was startled by this message. The thought had never occurred to me, perhaps since my childhood, that I "deserve" to receive certain generous or numerous gifts this Christmas – after all, isn't the season all about gratitude for God's gifts, a time for giving back?
Many of us are painfully aware that too many deserving Canadians will be struggling this Christmas, and in the year to come.
At Citizens for Public Justice this December, as part of the fourth installment of our research into poverty trends in Canada, we'll release a report entitled, Making Ends Meet. The report looks into family economic security, growing inequality and how Canadian families are managing to cope with the high costs of essentials.
The economic recovery in Canada is far too modest, creating difficulty for many of our neighbours. Using Statistics Canada figures, CPJ's report states, "In the face of economic uncertainty and stagnant incomes, Canadians are working hard to keep up with rising living costs, many turning to food banks and credit cards to make ends meet."
Even according to the lowest commonly accepted measure, 2.96 million people in Canada were poor in 2011 (the last year Statistics Canada has made data available.) Although this number has thankfully decreased over the last few years, especially since the 2008-09 recession, it is very high when Canada's standing is compared to other OECD (developed) countries.
What does this economic distress look like at Christmas 2013?
On any given night, 30,000 people are homeless, lodging in shelters or temporary institutional accommodations (such as hospitals), or sleeping outside. In addition, an estimated 50,000 are the "hidden homeless," individuals and families who move from place to place, "couch surfing" or who are staying in other short-term housing arrangements.
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, 3.3 million households – fully one-quarter of the total number – spent more than 30 per cent of their annual income on shelter, a level the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation considers "unaffordable."
More than 60 per cent of these households had total incomes below $30,000 per year. Surely governmental action on housing is a critical element necessary in confronting poverty - yet Canada remains the only wealthy country in the G8 without a national housing strategy.
Food Banks Canada's Hunger Count 2013 report revealed that 834,000 people turned to food banks or an affiliated food program in March 2013. This represents a welcome decline of 4.5 per cent from 2012 – but is still a 23 per cent increase over the same period in 2008.
Food Banks Canada notes, "We are at a point where the welfare office refers people to the food bank rather than provide emergency funds. . . . To deny this is a crisis, or to believe this is the best way to address poverty and food insecurity, is to deny reality."
What does Canada deserve this Christmas?
Many Canadians will donate to local food banks and Out of the Cold programs at their churches this holiday season, and rightly so. Others will direct donations to Syrian refugees or Philippine typhoon victims.
My own organization receives 40 per cent of our donation income in the last two months of the calendar year – without which we could not function. But as we donate, will we also give the time and effort necessary to advocate for the social, ecological and governmental reforms needed to address the causes of inequality and injustice? A comprehensive anti-poverty action plan would be Canada's most-deserving gift this Christmas.
It is well within our government's capacity to initiate a suite of policies and programs that strengthen income security programs and invest in critical supports and services for low-income people. These policies would include affordable housing, programs that facilitate access to healthy and affordable food, and assistance for low-wage, precarious workers.
What do you deserve these holidays? The reason I was in the bank was to secure the funds necessary for my son to come home from university. Getting together for some good family time, and getting our act together to address poverty's causes, seems like what every Canadian deserves.
(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)