Poverty in Canada

January 1 st 1993

Vancouver: The Fraser Institute, 1992, 242 pp., $15.95

The release of Christopher Sarlo's book, Poverty in Canada, quickly became a hot potato with nearly everyone outdoing themselves in loudly condemning the author. Sarlo had the audacity to ask a simple yet important question: How many people in Canada have incomes too low to afford all the basic requirements of living?

Despite Sarlo's clear explanation that asking the above question is something completely separate from constructing public policy prescriptions, the poverty bureaucrats seem unable (or unwilling) to differentiate between the two matters. Since the 1960s, social scientists have worked hard at changing the meaning of poverty from its traditional meaning of "poverty as the absence of necessities" to a relative definition, "poverty as being comparatively less well-off." To choose the former definition in today's world is an ideological affront to many social scientists, and therein lies much of the problem.

Sarlo begins by critically examining the relative definition of poverty. A typical example is that used by the Canadian Council on Social Development: "Poverty is having an income less than half the average national income (of a same-sized family)." Poverty thus defined immediately forgoes any connection with the actual health and physical wellbeing of the affected individuals. What is of concern is the individual's wellbeing relative to the material standing of the rest of the community. Thus a family is "impoverished" if they fall too far behind the unchecked materialistic binge our society regards as "progress."

The relative definition of poverty makes intertemporal comparisons impossible. If everyone's income quadrupled overnight the level of poverty would not change one iota! Sarlo cuts to the underlying reality of the relative approach, "Poverty...can only be reduced by redistributing incomes and output and not by producing more" (p. 30). International comparisons are also impossible since by this definition there is less poverty in subsistence countries such as Somalia than in Canada. Sarlo concludes: "Indeed the very fact that poverty exists everywhere makes it crucial that there be a universal definition" (p. 31).

There is a disturbing undercurrent in the above formulation of poverty. It does not contain any inkling of the notion that our Lord ever provides enough, that people can be content or satisfied. No matter how much we consume, the relative definition tells us we are "impoverished" if others have more. Public policy to alleviate the plight of the poor becomes impossible unless we become infatuated with the idea of "forced equality." Only then will 'poverty' be eliminated, although the poor may still not be fed. Surely Christians can see through this thin fa9ade. Relative definitions of poverty are seriously flawed. As Sarlo notes: "By including as 'poor' those who are merely 'relatively less well off,' we do a great disservice to the genuinely deprived" (p. 27).

All people need adequate food, shelter, and the funds to make opportunities a reality. Governments need to ensure this for all the citizenry. To eliminate poverty we need first to return to a realistic understanding of it, namely, poverty as the absence of life's necessities. Only then are we addressing the plight of the poor among us in a meaningful manner.

Sarlo's goal is straightforward, "Our interest here [is] to determine what basic needs cost and how many in our society have incomes too low to purchase all of them" (p. 199). He is not formulating precise welfare lines, but rather asking the important question of how many in our society are without the income necessary to provide for their basic needs.

The absolute definition of poverty has many advantages. It tells us how we are failing or succeeding as a society to provide even the most elementary economic justice within our country. It is tractable over time; we can watch and critique the effectiveness of various governmental measures to address poverty. It is universal. The effects of differing economic and political systems can be readily surveyed. The problems of the lesser-developed countries are not marginalized under absolute definition of poverty; rather, awareness of our global woes is heightened.

Sarlo constructs tables on the cost of food, shelter, and other necessities and concludes that about one million Canadians in 1988 were below this "needs-based" poverty line. A sizable portion of these are students and people in transition or elderly who owned their home outright. Sarlo's "basket of necessities" is sometimes restrictive and he acknowledges that there is a subjective component to any formulation of goods. He is attempting to shed some light on the plight of the poor in our country, rather than mixing them in with many who are doing well, but not "well enough" by our society's grossly inflated standards. Sarlo's book is a step toward cogently addressing poverty in Canada and deserves to be widely read.


Michael Loenen is a representative for the Christian Labour Association of Canada in Edmonton.