Fredericton – An anti-poverty group says the New Brunswick Alward government’s poverty reduction plan will not alleviate poverty. The government renewed its poverty reduction plan on August 26th, pointing to 150 community initiatives that the plan is funding across the province.
The former Graham Liberal government launched the Poverty Reduction Plan in late 2008 and created the Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation tasked to “develop, oversee, coordinate and implement initiatives to reduce poverty and assist thousands of New Brunswickers to become more self-sufficient.”
“The community initiatives are not addressing income poverty, which are two of the three key objectives of the Poverty Reduction Plan. If the Alward government was really serious about reducing poverty it would immediately increase the minimum wage and social assistance rates so people can at least live with some level of dignity,” says Linda McCaustlin who struggles with poverty herself and co-chairs one of the province’s largest and most vocal anti-poverty groups, the Common Front for Social Justice.
The minimum wage and social assistance rates in New Brunswick are among the lowest in Canada. Minimum wage in New Brunswick is $10.00 per hour but not indexed to the cost of living. A social assistance cheque for a single person deemed to be “employable” in a province where jobs are scarce is $537 per month. A single mother with one child receives a maximum of $827 per month in welfare. Next year, single mothers on welfare can hope to receive $885 per month. Social Development Minister Madeleine Dubé called the decision to increase social assistance rates by 4% this fall and by 3% next spring a “huge step” for people living in poverty.
During the launch of the Poverty Reduction Plan, 38,986 residents in New Brunswick depended on social assistance to survive. Five years later, in 2013, 39,202 residents depend on social assistance to survive, an increase of 216 persons.
Beyond higher minimum wage and social assistance rates, the Common Front is calling for restoration of unemployment compensation. From 2007 to 2012, 11,000 more workers joined the ranks of the unemployed, bringing the total to 40,000. The provincial unemployment rate today is 10.7 %.
A Fredericton food bank employee who wishes to remain anonymous says she has noticed an increase in food bank users and many of those new users are people who cannot find jobs and are not able to access Employment Insurance.
Between 2008 and 2012, the number of food bank clients in New Brunswick rose by 24.8% in our province. More than 19,524 individuals received help from food banks in March 2012. The Common Front points out that one third of those who rely on food banks in the province are children.
Established on a temporary basis in the late 1990s, food banks and soup kitchens have become a permanent fixture in this province with the numbers of their clientele increasing, according to Jean-Claude Basque, the other co-chair of the Common Front.
“Food bank usage is an indication of the precarious situation of people. They act pretty well like the canaries in the coal mines, giving warnings of imminent explosions,” says Basque. “It is basically the lack of adequate income that force individuals and families to rely on food banks to meet a fundamental need: getting food for their survival.”
The neoliberal era, from the mid 1970s and on, saw vicious attacks on the working class to restore profits during economic downturns. The neoliberal project calls for privatization of essential social services, deregulation, trade and financial liberalization, openness to foreign direct investment, a competitive exchange rate, fiscal discipline and lower corporate taxes. Neoliberalism’s failure to stimulate growth, reduce poverty or generate greater economic stability has its proponents calling for more neoliberalism. Workers are told to adapt, accept concessions and tighten their belts during economic crises.
In October 1976, one million workers in Canada walked off the job to protest Trudeau’s wage controls. Saint John labour activist George Vair recalls how workers in Saint John mobilized to defend their unions and defeat the unpopular program in his book, The Struggle Against Wage Controls: The Saint John Story, 1975-1976.
“The historic importance of the Canadian labour movement’s fight against this ill-conceived federal legislation should not be underestimated. The labour movement was successful in lessening the impact of the controls on its members and eventually killing the program. They also mobilized and educated millions of workers about the worth of their unions. Workers saw their leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with them at the bargaining table and in the streets. As a result, the Canadian labour movement took a strong position against attempts to wring concessions out of collective agreements throughout the 1980s,” writes Vair.
Despite the historical militant labour movement in Vair’s hometown of Saint John, the city is struggling with some of the highest poverty rates in the country today.
The Central Saint John postal area, with a median family income of $34,211, was ranked the sixth poorest in Canada, according to 2006 Stats Canada data. The Acadian Peninsula (Paquetville) was seventh poorest on the list, with a median family income of $35,849. The picture for personal income in New Brunswick may be even more bleak. Seven New Brunswick postal codes made the top ten poorest list for median personal income — Esgenoopetitj (Burnt Church), Kingsclear, Eel Ground, Tobique, Elsipogtog, Red Bank, and Adamsville. Esgenoopetitj was the poorest, with a median income of $9,200. The median income in the other communities was below $14,000.
Often oddly missing from the discussion on reducing or eradicating poverty are the mechanisms which generate, perpetuate, spread and further entrench poverty and social inequality.
Thirty-five years after the historical mobilizations against Trudeau’s wage controls followed by Mulroney and Chretien’s free trade deals, in 2011, the Occupy Wall Street movement reminded the world of inequality with their slogan, “We are the 99%.” Many Occupy protesters across the world drew attention to the economic system, capitalism, in their signs of protest and demanded a different system of economic and social relations where basic social needs are met for every human being.
Economist Eric Schutz, in his 2012 book, Inequality and Power: The Economics of Class, argues that, “Attacking inequality will require nothing less than attacking capitalism itself. There are a host of pragmatic measures that can reduce inequality, but only those that address the system-generated power of the capitalists can strike down the structures that give rise to it in the first place.”
Fashionable initiatives to reduce poverty through offensive acts of charity and small increases in minimum wage and welfare do little to challenge inequality. For all the talk of what the Occupy movement achieved or did not achieve, Occupy reminded us that there is a desire across the world to understand why the masses are condemned to live on the margins and in misery and that there are many willing to sacrifice and struggle to give birth to a more humane world where equality is imaginable.