Appeared in the Huffington Post
Do you remember the game, “Where’s Waldo”? For those that don’t, the object of the game is to look at a picture filled with a bunch of images and you have to find Waldo. Waldo is usually wearing his patented red and white shirt and hat. Sometimes finding him is easy. But sometimes it’s extremely hard. You sit there, even as an adult, and spend a good amount of time trying to find Waldo.
Well in this election campaign, poverty is Waldo. Where is it? Has it been discussed? Debated? Mentioned even? Perhaps a bit, usually as add on to another discussion or point, but never the main focus. It’s like it doesn’t even exist.
Unfortunately I know it does. I know there are 4.8 million people living in poverty in this country, with close to one million children living in poverty. I know that in 2014, almost 900,000 Canadians used food banks every month, with over one third of those being children. I know that one in 10 Canadians either do not fill their prescription for cost reasons or deliberately skipped doses to save money.
People in poverty live in every region, city and town of this country. These folks deal every day with the most basic questions. Can I afford to pay the rent? If I do, can I put food on the table? What kind of food can I buy? Is it healthy for myself and my family?
For the children, they face an empty stomach on the way school, and a desk or locker without schools supplies. For many, they can’t even go on school trips because the cost is too high. Just fraught with daily life, these children can’t even dream about getting ahead.
We also must remember that these are the people that live below a defined poverty measure. There are many other Canadians that may be working that are living just above the poverty line, but are also struggling.
So why isn’t poverty on the election radar? Why isn’t it talked and debated about on a national scale?
Now there has been some discussion about social housing, which is immensely important. As the Chair of the Mayor’s Task Force on Toronto Community Housing (TCHC) I know we need immense investment in social housing. Toronto has a waiting list of 90,000 households looking for decent, affordable accommodation. But we also need to talk about the people that live inside the apartment walls.
The cold hard truth is that the political parties don’t believe poverty wins elections. It doesn’t sway voters. They might even think that people living in poverty don’t vote so they don’t have to make it a major priority. Instead we hear about the middle class — the catch all.
I believe this because as co-founder and current steering member of the all-party anti-poverty caucus I have seen it. I have seen it in halls of parliament. We have held many meetings to raise awareness on poverty; meetings on such issues as the working poor, child poverty and homelessness. We have had many wonderful organizations come and inform us about poverty and its consequences.
But the issue just doesn’t get the traction it deserves. Of course there are competing interests and issues. There are personal biases and misconceptions. There are philosophical divisions. And unfortunately, as I mentioned, there is political calculation. Political parties believe that it just doesn’t register with voters. That action doesn’t win elections. That is a real shame. A national shame.
Can we make poverty a campaign issue?
I know people care. I know Canadians care. Recently, I attended a great meeting in Pembroke, Ontario where the community is coming together to create a local poverty reduction strategy in Renfrew County. There are many more like them across the country. I know that national organizations like Canada Without Poverty, Food Banks Canada and Citizens for Public Justice are organizing a call to action.
But we need more. We must ensure that every candidate, in every riding, of all the major parties meet people living in poverty. They should learn about their daily challenges to ensure the numbers have meaning, have a face. Emotion moves people. Emotion makes them act.
Let’s not waste this opportunity. Poverty is the challenge that many in Canada face daily. Let’s push our political parties to take notice. Let’s force them to act.
Art Eggleton is a Canadian Senator and former Mayor of Toronto and Member of Parliament.