Special to The Globe and Mail
Published Friday, Jun. 19, 2015
When economists and policy makers think about poverty, provisions of the necessities of life – food, clothing and shelter – are front and centre. Without reasonable nourishment, a shirt on your back and a place to live, it becomes difficult to actually stay alive.
But living is more than simply preventing death. Most Canadians want to fully participate in the 21st century economy and provide a better standard of living for themselves and their family. However, full engagement in the economy requires more than the basics of food, clothing and shelter. In 2015 there are three more essential elements: transportation, communication and community. Each comes with policy implications for government – especially those governments keen to address issues of urban poverty.
Transportation is an obvious necessity for anyone who is expected to get around a city to take employment. Since it’s not reasonable or practical to expect a low-income individual to live within walking distance of work, an affordable system of public transportation must be in place. The cost of public transportation adds to the generally high cost of living in most Canadian cities. A monthly transit pass is close to $100, and even if there’s a subsidy available for low-income earners, it’s a huge non-discretionary expense for those earning minimum wage.
The policy alternative for government is simple: make public transportation free. In a utopian world, thus it would be. Of course that policy choice would come with a hefty price tag. Who’s going to cover the revenue shortfall for municipal transit companies if they can’t generate revenue through transit fares? This would have to be worked out. But if governments can still find cash for hip replacements and trade missions (both good things, by the way) there should be the political will to eliminate transportation costs for low-income Canadians.
The second new essential in the 21st century is communication. While it’s true that a cell phone won’t keep your heart beating and your brain operating, it’s also true that you cannot fully participate in the work force without one. Landlines are an anachronism. Basic smart phone plans with local calling and texting are no longer a luxury – they’re now essential. How can an employer call with a job offer or text you your hours next week if you don’t have one? The costs of these plans can be prohibitive for low-income earners. Governments should recognize this fact and think of ways to put more communication tools into the hands of those they’d like to see engage more fully in the economy.
The third essential element is community – the connection with other humans, the means to improve social skills and the emotional support that each of us needs. Without community, an individual can fall into a life of desperate loneliness and isolation. Soft skills like proper conversational speech, appropriate behaviour and even personal hygiene are sometimes the weakest link for job-seekers.
In previous eras, strong community was taken for granted. People found it naturally in churches, service organizations, even bowling leagues. But in our increasingly disconnected world, it is often difficult to build social and personal connections. And without a community of friends, family and care givers, an individual’s chance of economic success will fall.
To be fair, governments at all levels recognize the importance of community and most of them do their part to support and facilitate community programming. Where the shift needs to happen is the way in which we think about such programs. If governments (and voters) only consider community building as a trite way of appeasing social service agencies, we won’t get anywhere. On the other hand, governments should consider them the essential means by which more Canadians can build social connections and hone their soft skills. In doing so they’ll increase their probability of economic success and independence.
Food, shelter and clothing were the must-haves in the post-industrial world. But simply keeping people alive is not enough. In 21st century Canada, transportation, communication and social community are the new must-haves. Government policy must adapt to recognize these as means to lower the cost of living and raise the probability of success for low-income Canadians.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline