Poverty rates in Canada have improved significantly over the last few years. Nevertheless, they stand little improved from 20 years ago. Internationally, when it comes to dealing with poverty, Nordic countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Finland, as well as several European countries, including the Netherlands, France and Germany, best Canada. According to the United Nations’ Human Poverty Index,1 Canada ranked 12th among 17 rich countries in 2004 in dealing with poverty issues.
There are many good reasons for developing effective policies to address problems related to poverty and social exclusion. The issue goes to the heart of the kind of society we want and the levels of inequality we are willing to tolerate. More than this, and perhaps less obviously, it is also about generating economic wealth for all Canadians.
Shaping this debate are new conceptual bases for how we think about poverty. No longer is the idea of poverty confined to a narrow conceptualization related to point-in-time income. Instead, a more comprehensive definition focuses on the intersection of low income and other dimensions of social exclusion, including access to essential goods and services, adequate and affordable housing, good health and well-being, and participation in social networks. Broader interpretations of poverty incorporate notions of dignity and capabilities to achieve one’s potential. Still, others speak in terms of citizen rights to social and economic participation.
Enhancing the position of the least advantaged in society also makes good economic sense. Given that Canadians with low skill levels are most likely to find themselves in situations of poverty, equipping these individuals with the skills that would allow fuller participation could reap great benefits not just for them, but also for society as a whole. For example, recent evidence demonstrates that differences in average skill levels among OECD countries explain significant differences in economic growth.2 In particular, increasing literacy rates, especially among adults with the lowest skill levels, has a significant impact on the labour productivity and economic performance of countries. So, the way we deal with poverty and exclusion becomes not only a question of the values reflected in our laws, public policies, and programs, but also how we can increase economic growth and the overall well-being of our citizenry.
We know more today about the economic and social realities associated with poverty. Results from longitudinal surveys provide new insights into the dynamics of poverty, its depth, and its consequences. There is a great deal of heterogeneity, for example, in the life courses of individuals. And although poverty is often a transient state, certain population groups seem to have a persistently high incidence of low income.
How should social and economic policies adapt to these new perspectives and realities? What emerging approaches show the most promise and warrant the careful attention of policy makers? Answers to these questions will require effective collaboration among federal departments, other orders of government, and key stakeholders. For more than a year now, the PRI has been conducting an interdepartmental project, New Approaches for Addressing Poverty and Exclusion. The goal is to assess the potential role of new policy approaches to address poverty emerging worldwide, with an emphasis on possible mediumterm implications for Canadian federal policies.
This issue of Horizons features several contributions from our departmental partners and from PRI policy research staff involved in this project. The articles range from descriptions of how poverty has evolved and the groups affected to literature reviews and analytical pieces touching on tools and policies.
Responsibility for reducing poverty and exclusion does not rest solely with governments. The non-profit sector plays a significant role as well and, therefore, the issue also includes pieces from academics and non-governmental organizations that share our interest in finding solutions to problems of economic and social exclusion.
The release of this issue coincides with the PRI conference, Exploring New Approaches to Social Policy, to be held in Ottawa on December 13-15. We hope this publication will serve as a useful complement to the presentations and deliberations featured at the conference, and that, together with outputs from the conference, it will contribute to the identification of more effective approaches and policies for addressing issues of poverty and exclusion.
United Nations’ Human Development Reports. <http://hdr.undp.org/reports/global/2002/en>.
Coulombe, S., J.F. Tremblay, and S. Marchand. 2004. Literacy Scores, Human Capital and Growth Across Fourteen OECD Countries. Statistics Canada, catalogue no. 89-552-XPE, no.11. See also, “Counting Heads: A Breakthrough in Measuring the Knowledge Economy”. The Economist. August 28, 2004, Vol. 372, Issue 8390: 70.