Fergus-Elora News Express Editorial
Despite everything we hear from government about the recession being over, and the economy being in recovery mode (if fragile), the reality is quite different for many people across the country.
In March, 882,188 people got help from a food bank somewhere in Canada - 2.4 percent more than at the same time in 2011 - and 31 percent more than were receiving food bank help before the 2008 recession, according to Food Banks Canada's Hunger Count released last week.
Those who use food banks aren't "deadbeats" or "lazy." Many have jobs - they just don't make enough money to pay basic expenses that include food. Others are seniors, whose pensions and other support don't generate enough income to meet expenses that have increased drastically recently. Others are trying to survive and raise families on disability support payments, which are barely enough to cover rent and utilities, let alone leave some money for food.
Low income is the overriding single factor in people going hungry, the Hunger Count report says.
"People asking for help are working in low-paying jobs, receiving meagre social assistance benefits, managing on inadequate pensions. They face rising costs related to food, housing, and energy. In the current economy, they are worried that things are not going to get better."
It's so easy to dismiss this growing sector of the population, to say they should just "work harder," or assume their situation really isn't that bad.
But most people who haven't experienced that kind of poverty can't imagine what it's like. Food bank volunteers and staff know.
They'll tell stories of seniors who try to get by on a cup of milk and a handful of pasta because they're too proud to "beg for food" at a food bank. Or people who don't have the money to get a haircut before looking for a job. People who haven't been able to afford to take diabetes medication for months. Families who don't have money to buy children mittens or boots for the winter.
Politicians don't know. Despite their high-blown rhetoric of "commitment" to social programs, many still seem to treat those needing any form of social assistance as second-class citizens, doling out pittances here and there while all too eager to take back benefits at the slightest excuse.
Every so often one of them decides to find out what it's really like to be poor, and eats a meal at a soup kitchen or spends a night "on the street" to show he or she empathizes with those needing assistance.
Such publicity stunts are laughable, insulting to people who have to survive in those circumstances. Does any MPP "dropping in" for a night on the street really know what it's like to live day after day in a cardboard box on a city street in a Canadian winter, with no hope of anything better?
A much more realistic exercise involves a little math. Take the amount someone receives on disability support, or Canada pension and old-age security, subtract the average monthly rent and utilities, or taxes and mortgage payments.
Take the rest, in cash, and try to buy a months' worth of groceries. You'll soon find yourself making some difficult decisions - and you'd probably find yourself at a food bank long before the month ends.
Among the Hunger Count's recommendations is boosting the Guaranteed Income Supplement so no senior lives in poverty, changing provincial social assistance programs so they help people live with dignity, and increasing federal investment in affordable housing so people don' t have to choose between buying food and paying rent.
Government needs to act on these recommendations - instead of wasting hundreds of millions on unbuilt power plants and unused consultant reports (to pick just two items.) And people need to support government in doing this.
It seems inconceivable that in a country as affluent as Canada, there are so many people forced to make that choice - and we should all be doing everything we can to make sure they don't have to.