Throughout the year, the UN dedicates certain days to a particular theme. In 2008, to remind us that we share the same planet, the UN chose February 20 as the World Day of Social Justice. Its purpose is to promote equitable distribution of income and greater access to resources for all.
Many people are unaware that serious incidents of injustice occur regularly. There are cases where people feel so trapped by unjust circumstances that they may contemplate suicide. Incidents such as those are reminders that a truly just world is far from achieved. It is important to set aside February 20th as a day to commit ourselves to work for permanent social justice and equity in a globalized world.
The Charter of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” While this is true in theory, in practice, it is far from being realized. Many people start their lives with less chance of success than others.
The function of the World Day for Social Justice is to press for improvements and solutions to correct injustices. With the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, we are called to promote fair income distribution, greater access to resources and equality for all. The obvious way to do this is to resolve present fiscal injustices. Justice through taxation is a way to increase better social relationships and remove dangerous inequalities. Even though taxes are often seen as a way that governments put their hands in people’s pockets, in reality, taxation is a way to establish justice. It promotes the redistribution of wealth and protects the dignity of people living in poverty.
The current taxation systems in Canada and in New Brunswick are unfair.
Federal and provincial governments have cut taxes for wealthy individuals and large corporations so much over the past few decades that, when all taxes are considered, the richest one per cent pay a lower overall tax rate than all other income groups, including the poorest ten per cent.
Achieving fiscal justice requires raising tax rates on high-income individuals and profitable corporations, while ensuring that those at lower income levels receive the benefits to which they are entitled.
One way to address the problem of excessive wealth accumulation by those who are already among the wealthiest is to implement a new wealth tax. Decades of corporate tax cuts have cost the federal and provincial governments significant amounts of money, but have failed to stimulate jobs, promote economic growth, and reduce poverty.
In New Brunswick, the group of people most unfairly treated is those who are forced to rely on social assistance. The assistance rate for individuals deemed employable is only $571 per month. Such people cannot afford a roof over their heads because a single room costs from $400 and upwards. A person depending on social assistance cannot feed himself adequately because a nutritious diet costs at least $250 per month. Thousands of New Brunswickers go to food banks and soup kitchens, get secondhand clothes from clothing depots, and go without elemental necessities. Their basic human rights are being violated.
It is imperative that social assistance rates be increased because the income of single recipients and of their families does not reach the poverty line as defined by Statistics Canada. In New Brunswick, the poverty line for one person is $21,579 per year, for two people it is $30,518 and for four people it is $43,159. The Common Front for Social Justice has recently asked the Minister of Social Development to increase the rates for all individuals and all households on social assistance by $100 per month in the 2022-2023 provincial budget. This one-time increase will be helpful but insufficient to bring their income up to the poverty line.
Other generous increases will be needed over several years, until their income reaches the poverty line. Over 40 non-profit organizations have endorsed the Common Front’s request for this $100 raise in an open letter to the Minister of Social Development. An increase in social assistance rates would reduce provincial health care costs, ameliorate the homelessness crisis, and restore dignity to those living in poverty.
Justice and dignity must also be a reality for low-wage earners. The recent increase in the minimum wage in New Brunswick is a step in the right direction towards social justice. Currently, an individual who works less than 35 hours per week at minimum wage for 52 weeks has an income below the poverty line. Many people are in this situation, including seasonal workers working for minimum wage. Without respect for the rights of these people, they live in anxiety regarding their future, and their right to dignity is ignored.
February 20 is the designated day to recognize and express gratitude to many non-profit organizations and their leaders who never miss an occasion to organize for social justice. If justice reigned everywhere in the world, every person would live in peace and harmony. Nelson Mandela said that: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
With the proper determination, political leaders can bring about a fair and just society.
Auréa Cormier is secretary of the Saint-Vincent de Paul Society in Moncton.