Oct. 25, 2022

#164: Emilly Renaud, National Coordinator, Canada Without Poverty - Poverty and Inflation

#164: Emilly Renaud, National Coordinator, Canada Without Poverty - Poverty and Inflation

With rising inflation and cost of living, what has this meant for the most marginalized groups in society? If groceries are expensive for the middle class, what about low-income families? Emilly Renaud is the National Coordinator for Canada Without Poverty. The issues affecting low income families and individuals are discussed in this episode. 

Episode #162 - Emilly Renaud, National Coordinator, Canada Without Poverty

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Christopher Balkaran:

Emilly, thanks so much for joining me here on the Open Minds podcast with myself. So tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with Canada Without Poverty. This is such a fascinating organization. 

Emilly Renaud:

It's kind of a funny story because it's sort of a COVID success story that not very many people experienced. So I finished grad school. I did a Masters of Public Administration right as the Pandemic hit in March 2020. And at the time, I was stressfully applying to all these internships and jobs and being a student. A lot of those student internships just got canceled. So I was actually working at Value Village, and I have lived experience in poverty. I grew up in social housing. I've worked minimum wage jobs my whole life. So I was working out of grad school with $50,000 of student debt, working $14 an hour at Value Village, just feeling like a complete failure. And then through the power of networking, met the former executive director, Lalani FARA, who brought me on board because she was switching to her current organization, The Shift. So I ended up in a nonprofit sector, and I really did not anticipate that that's where my path would go, because I did not know the degree in which you could be involved in policy and governmental process through the advocacy and nonprofit field. But it's perfect for my passions. 

I get to work with lived-experienced people across the country. It definitely can be a very challenging job, but it's really rewarding. And it's great to know that I'm sitting on my desk every day working on something that really matters and that is actually impacting people's lives. 

Christopher Balkaran:

When you say the phrase lived experience, it can mean so many things to so many different people. So I want to ask you, Emilly, what does that mean to you? Because I know that when it comes to issues of poverty, for example, it's so wide reaching, it's so urban, rural, remote, isolated, indigenous, non indigenous. So, yes, what does lived experience when it comes to poverty mean for you? 

Emilly Renaud:

Yeah, so lived experience broadly means anyone who has lived in poverty or is living in poverty. And as we can dive into the rest of the show in various different ways for various different people. For example, I may have experienced poverty, but I didn't experience racial oppression as a white woman that some people might experience that intensifies and exacerbates their experiences of poverty. So these are definitely important distinctions to have. But I guess for the sake of simplicity, we can say lived experience for all types of people who have experience living in low income or in poverty conditions. 

Christopher Balkaran:

And how has that helped you in your current role? I mean, it seems obvious that it would, but how have you seen some of your own experience translate into the work that you've done with Canada without poverty? At least helping to shape policies or advocacy or anything that Canada Without Poverty is currently doing. 

Emilly Renaud:

Well, I think having someone in this role who has lived experience and just to note that Canada Without Poverty has a board of directors and they all have lived or living experience in poverty and they govern the organizations and they're in provinces and territories across the country. So they really sort of decided the direction and the projects that the organization does. And the staff have sometimes had lived experience in property, but not always. 

And I think having that lived experience not only allows me to think more critically about policies that come out, but it really brings a lot more meaning to my role. I've had very surreal experiences where I've been writing chapters for people's reports on housing security, while my own brother, who has a different father and he is black, he has a daughter, he had a daughter at a young age in life and he had gotten evicted from his house during the pandemic. And I'm there trying to write about people getting evicted during the pandemic. So sometimes it's empowering and it adds a lot of meaning to my work. 

But it can be extremely hard to focus on other people when your own family is going through it as well. So it's definitely an experience. It's one of those intangibles that when you're in the interview process, when you're trying to get that job, it's hard to kind of convey that. It's hard to summarize that. I think this would be one of the only sectors where you could talk about your lived experience on your resume and it actually would add to your resume and to your qualifications. Whereas if I was applying at like a consulting firm, they would be like, why is she talking about her issues? You know, it's interesting. 

Christopher Balkaran:

I also did my MPA, I did Carleton and I noticed that the program definitely pushes you into government. So many colleagues of mine, so many friends that I made say ‘what about the job opportunities in the not for profit sector and the private sector’? Ottawa has so many national offices for a lot of organizations there. Why are we not kind of broaching and understanding that as potential policy co-ops, internships, summer co-ops? And I think it's because there's a concerted effort for people to get government experience early on in their career and then go into those sectors. But it seems like you did the opposite. And I wonder how many students it would have been a better fit for them than jumping into the province. 

Emilly Renaud:

I had a very similar experience where my program very much funneled people into both the provincial and federal government. And I sort of naturally also followed. And to be quite honest, after a life of income and security, the idea of a pension and really steady wages was much more appealing than doing something like the nonprofit. And not that not all nonprofits are in precarious funding situations, but it's certainly not necessarily the most steady guarantee that you will be able to work there for ten years. 

I think that a lot of young people, if they're listening and they're interested in getting into some of these policy issues, something I did not learn enough about in grad school, was just how this whole third sector, and that includes the advocacy organizations, civil society organizations, think tanks, how they're such important actors for democracy and for policy creation. 

I do a lot of consultation work with parliamentary committees and councils. I do human rights reporting to the UN. So I'm actually getting to do a lot more than the average public servant would be able to do. And it's really changed. And I have a lot of friends in the government and sometimes they have very exciting projects, but then other times they feel like just a pencil pusher for the lack of a better term. So I'm quite happy that I ended up not working for the government because I think once you're in it, it's hard to leave. And I agree. A lot of people, a lot of my friends who have now been working for the government for three years are thinking about transitioning to the nonprofit sector. But it is a bit of a pay cut. They're much smaller institutions and organizations. But yes, I did have a very unique career story where I kind of just went right to the top rather than worked my way up. I'm a very unique situation. 

Christopher Balkaran:

As National Coordinator, of course, I want to chat with you broadly about poverty and inflation, but more specifically Canada Without Poverty. So the charitable organization that is Canada Without Poverty, the mission statement is to “seek to eradicate poverty in Canada for the benefit of all by educating Canadians about the human and financial cost of poverty”. And as I thought about that mission statement, I thought that is very fascinating, that there's a gap on education, on poverty and the financial costs. So I want to ask you, what do you see as some of the gaps when it comes to educating the population about poverty? 

Emilly Renaud:

I think traditionally when we talk about poverty, we talk about it very much from it's the right thing to do to ensure that we all live with dignity. It's the right thing to do to make sure that everyone has a roof over their head. And of course, that's the centre of it is that very human centric, empathetic piece. But when we do our policy work, when we do our consultation, we know that we also have to approach things in a very pragmatic, practical, economic lens. And that is showing that not addressing the issues of poverty in both the short term and the long term actually is more expensive than just all these band aid solutions that the government is proposing. 

For example, you take one unhoused person and they are living on the streets and catching various ammonias or having compounding health issues from just the harsh conditions of living on the street. The cost of running emergency shelters coupled with health care. The cost of running a bandaid solution. Food banks. It all ends up being a lot more expensive than just housing and providing them with some sort of basic livable income. And that's the piece that we also try to bring is that in our perspective, a human right to ensure that everyone in Canada is living with dignity and the basic necessities. 

But there's also very pragmatic, economical approach to understanding that persistent and growing poverty is bad for democracy, it's bad for the economy and it's bad for society when it comes to that financial cost of poverty. 

Christopher Balkaran:

One debate/conversation I always have with my friends is that Canada sometimes suffers from the ‘we're too rich’ syndrome. It's hard for us to fathom how rich our country is with a very low population in relation to that. And because of that, it's hard for us to also understand the true cost of things because unlike many countries in the developing world, they're making hard choices between social programs and making sure that roads and bridges are adequate and they're not falling apart. Do you find the same issue when it comes to poverty, that we're such a wealthy nation? It's really hard for people to understand what poverty looks like in Canada and the true cost of it to the taxpayer, to Canadian citizens. 

Emilly Renaud:

So a common thing I tell my friends when I hear that argument is that “it's too expensive to house everyone/ it's too expensive to implement a universal basic income”. I always say we actually, as a nation and as you said, we are extremely wealthy. We have a lot of money when you consider our quite small population. So it's not a matter if we don't have enough money to fix it. It's a matter of we just have massive inequality and inequity in this country and if we had better tax reforms and if we had more equitable programs, more efficient programs Canada is famous for patchwork. 

Every province has a different system and in those systems there are different programs. And it's sort of just the paperwork alone and the admin cost alone of that is quite expensive. So it's also just making more efficient programs and better delivery. But I think when you think about these big figures of oh, it's going to cost us $50 billion to end homelessness. It sounds like a big number, but we have that money. We just need to actually implement these programs and then also prioritize helping those most in need, and then further having a more just and equal economic system. 

So that it's not this 1% who keeps growing while the bottom 90% are struggling. 

Christopher Balkaran:

It's interesting you mention that, because I've always had this theory, and I want to share it with you. I know this is off topic. But it's this theory that I have, which is that you're totally right that when it comes to poverty and many issues, that the needs of individuals are so unique. So, again, remote, isolated, rural, urban, it's very different across the country. Able, disabled, physical, mental health, big issues. I've always thought to myself that the government gets a lot of information from us through the T4s we submit in tax time in Ontario. I'm sure they keep medical records of all the walking clinics and all that other I'm sure provinces do that as well. 

One of the problems I've heard constantly is that the applications for social assistance and social welfare is very cumbersome. In fact, it can be a barrier for people who do not have high computer literacy, who may not have full use of their physical body to type. It's very challenging. And so I thought to myself, can we not, as a country, create some type of algorithm? I hate to say that word, but given all the information we already gave the government, they should say, Christopher, okay, we understand that you're in your 30s, you live in Toronto, you work here. This is your income. You do not qualify for these programs or these income supports. But this person does. And that person doesn't need to do anything because we've already kind of assessed their situation based on the information they've already given us. And if there's anything else they'd like to apply for, here are the websites for them to check that out. I just think that that gets us out of the business somewhat of the administration. That's the biggest one of the big barriers. And we just leverage big data, as bad as that sounds, we leverage big data for the benefit for people who are having a hard time accessing these programs. That's my theory. What do you think? 

Emilly Renaud:

No, you're hitting the nail on the head. Something that the nonprofit, rather, the anti-poverty movement is really calling for is just automatic opt-in benefits because so many people don't know about some of the programs that they could heavily benefit from. For example, I'm based in Ontario. There's actually a very generous Ontario hydro benefit, but you have to apply it yourself. And now, granted, it's actually quite an easy application, but I didn't learn about that as an educated white woman from a low income family who has dealt with social welfare workers. My life through child welfare and then also through various government institutions. So if I didn't know about it, that means a lot of people don't know about it and they don't really advertise it. 

And I think there's an intention behind why they don't advertise it. And it's to save money and to prevent the maximum number of people who are eligible to apply for it. But I think if I was able to take advantage of that hydro credit early on, I could have saved, I'm not even joking, thousands of dollars because hydro is so expensive. And I think about how much I could have just if I could just apply that to my student loans, how much of a breath of air that would be. But we really penalize low income people and we overplease every dollar they make and also having programs be as regressive as possible while we sort of are very lazy fair when it comes to the richest Rich of the rich. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Yeah, no, it's fascinating. I just think that you're right to auto opt in, similar to that great book called Nudge, which talks about organ donations and having just people automatically enroll and if they'd like to opt out, they can. That might increase. So, anyway, I want to get back to Canada without poverty, I promise. And so I understand that the history began with the National Anti Poverty Organization in the 1970s focusing on a variety of issues. And one thing I thought about was what Cobalt 19 has done to low income families, in particular across Canada. What do you see as some of those unique issues affecting low income families and individuals across Canada as a result of COVID-19? 

Emilly Renaud:

Because often when we talk, we talk about how it's affected us. Mental health. Often we forget that there are people living off very little who have been perhaps devastated by it. I guess to remember back to March 2020 when it was just announced, one of the biggest messages the government told us all was to stay at home. Well, not everyone has a home, not everyone has a house. A lot of people are couch-surfing, a lot of people are living on the streets, living in shelters, reduced capacity, which meant even fewer people could access the already limited and maxed out shelter services. So, off the bat, you have this government message that excludes people. It's hard to count, but there's estimates that about 1,000 people experience homelessness in Canada at any given night. So already you have 100,000 people excluded from a very simple public health. And then for the people who do have roofs over their head, especially with undocumented newcomers, students living in poverty in the north, there's a huge gap in infrastructure. 

So you have a lot of overcrowding and well, how are you supposed to social distance and isolate if you are sharing a room with an entire family? And granted, you're probably also working a minimum wage job where your workers rights are not being respected and you are contracting COVID and bringing it into the household. And we saw this a lot in Alberta and a lot of the food production industries with the migrant workers who because they don't access the same level of employment rights that people with status in Canada have. They were contracting covert. Their employers were ignoring it or delaying the processes to ensure that they get their paid sick leave or whatever benefits they're able to access. Living in overcrowded workhouses. Etc. And so off the bat, one of the biggest messages that public health were telling us people could not actually realistically do. 

Another thing I would like to shed light on is that there's so much we really penalize people who applied to serve potentially, whether or not they knew they were eligible or not, we really penalize those people. But what I think a lot of people understand is even if you were technically working full time during the pandemic because so many businesses reduced hours, having one or 2 hours less a week is actually makes a huge difference when you're living paycheck to paycheck. Because then all of a sudden that's about $30-$40 less a week. Maybe that was the money you used to pay for your transit that week or the money you used to pay for your prescriptions because you don't have health coverage from your work. So there were also a lot of people who couldn't necessarily apply for CERB because they were working, but they were receiving just enough claw-back from their hours that it really impacted their day to day lives. 

But then because again, we just, I guess, expect people to work harder, expect people to take up multiple jobs. Again, we're just very aggressive when it comes to low income workers. I don't think we understand how difficult it is to live paycheck to paycheck and then when all of a sudden your store is open only till seven instead of nine, you lose out on 2 hours of a shift and that makes a huge difference in your quality of life. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Why do you think that this is so hard - let's take CERB for example. I remember reading countless articles on media outlets saying the government sent out thousands of $2,000 cheques and there's no checks on that. The CERB is going to be here and it's driving up inflation and all these recipients need to start giving their money back and the CRA is coming after those that misspent their CERB. Or it was misallocated. And I thought to myself this is a great moment where the media very well has mischaracterized the people who actually need CERB because of the COVID-19 restrictions that the government undertook. And just that characterization of those that needed it put people, especially the middle class, on their heels to say, hang on, they're milking the system. They're getting too much money. And as I talk to more individuals in the poverty space, they feel the same. That the way in which the low income families and low income communities are characterized is so divisive. Do you sense that as well in the media as well? 

Emilly Renauld:

Absolutely. I think it all ties back into this sort of overarching discourse that we have of the deserving versus the undeserving core. And just to start, sometimes I feel like I'm screaming into a void because when people blame CERB for inflation today, well, even if you had applied for every single serve eligibility period, that's only $12,000. That's two years ago. That would not be lasting today. Potentially, some people may put it away into investments and all of a sudden spend it, but that wouldn't be even the majority of the people who would be eligible for CERB. That wouldn't be affecting inflation today. And we're so quick to just pounce on, okay, we got to police people in poverty again, because I think when the government announces these big, bold promises to eradicate homelessness, to increase guaranteed benefits for seniors or for people with disabilities, those numbers sound really large. 

And I think people who are middle class or upper class very much see themselves as why I worked for where I got today. Why can't they just pull themselves up by the bootstraps when they don't realize that we have such a broken system that you could be working full time and still not have enough money just to pay for rent for a one bedroom apartment, let alone even save money every month to ever achieve that kind of middle class dream. 

I think that the media kind of went from, look at all these low income people being affected by COVID. Low wage workers are our heroes. We should be applauding our grocery store clerks then, right? To, well, because they got pandemic benefits. They're all to blame for inflation today. 

Something I've been doing a lot of research in, and I'm not an economist. I don't have a background in financial policy. Mine is more in social policy. But I'm researching a lot on just the history of collusion for our grocery stores in Canada. A few years ago, there was a big case on evidence in the case, one that proved that the major grocery monopolies in Canada did collude on the price of bread. And then I don't know if you can recall, but people could apply for a $25 rebate to sort of pay back people who definitely over paid for the price of bread and grocery chains. When we talk about the pinch of inflation, we always talk about food first, and we talk about how our grocery bills are bigger. Well, grocery chains made more money than ever in the pandemic, and every year they make more and more money. And understandably, supply costs might be going up, labour costs going up, but instead of them maybe taking a little bit out of their already enormous profits, they're raising prices. And it's normalizing the idea that people have to pay when labor costs go up or when there's a challenge in the supply chain instead of companies who are making enormous amounts of money rather than them being accountable to, okay, let's go back to 2019 profits instead of 2021 profits. 

So I think people are a lot more furious at one person applying to CERB than extremely greedy grocery chains colluding on prices and probably raising prices on food that is not to sell in conspiracy theorists. But I would be suspicious of, like, okay, did the price of bananas really have to increase for everyone by ten cents a pound? Where are these figures coming from? I think sometimes there's collusion and capitalization off of when inflation happens. I think sometimes big companies really try to take advantage of that and raise prices just to sort of blame it on inflation. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Yeah, I'd love to read that research and that judgment, if you have it. I'd look at the show notes. 

Emilly Renaud:

This is just my own research, no formal report, but I can share with you some of my chicken scratch notes. 

Christopher Balkaran:

I think you're also right. When it comes to corruption, people are less likely to latch onto that. So they're less likely to blame Jeff Bezos for paying no taxes. They're more likely to, like you say, blame the beneficiary who got $2,000 a month, and I'm out here working for $3,000 a month, and I pay all this money in taxes. There's something to be said about that from a psychological perspective. Why does our mind latch on to that person and not that other person? But anyhow, that's probably another podcast for another day. 

I wanted to chat with you specifically because of the mission statement of Canada Without Party that, again, wants to help educate Canadians about the human and finance of poverty. In 2018, Angus Reid did a poll to gather Canadians perceptions on poverty, and this is what I truly found fascinating. Half of Canadians, about 52%, agree that poor people have hard lives because government benefits don't go far enough to help them live with dignity. And nearly as many agree 47%, that a good work ethic is all you need to do to escape poverty. That seems to be a common response I get from friends, colleagues, general public about poverty, if only they worked hard. But given that fact that people do believe that work ethic gets you out of it. What would you say in response to that? Because I do understand that there are situations people are in that a good work ethic is not enough potentially to get them out of poverty. 

Emilly Renaud:

Yeah, I think it really overshadows, one, the fact that a lot of people experience oppression in the workplace and don't necessarily get the same access to certain types of racialized because they're queer, because they're disabled, etc. So it really takes away the whole oppression and equity seeking part of the equation. And that's where I'd like to draw attention first, because I think it's so important to understand that people experiencing poverty, racialized people and oppressed people, experience even deeper forms of poverty. 

They are working minimum wage jobs more often than white Canadians, experiencing job scarcity more severely than white Canadians. So I do like to point to the fact that there is still racism and discrimination and oppression in our various institutions that is also causing this. And no amount of work ethic will change the colour of your skin and how your employer will perceive that. 

Another thing I like to draw attention to is how much of our economy, and this is specifically the service industry and our food systems are dependent and completely upheld by migrant workers and also undocumented workers. From farming to production to grocery store clerks. To Uber delivery drivers and just delivery drivers in general. Proportionally migrant workers. People who don't have the same access to employment rights. People working the gig economy and also a lot of undocumented people who just are working for cash. And I think that goes very hidden in our society. We don't necessarily know that a lot of these people are not actually getting the same employment rights. 

For example, migrant workers working on farms don't actually have entitlement to minimum wage, which is quite crazy to think because minimum wage is so low as it is, to be paid less than that for such a labor job is like such a violation of basic human rights. So I like to draw attention to that, that there are a lot of people experiencing complete discrimination because of their status and because of their social economic position, society. And then further, I think with the cost of housing, with the cost of food, which is the cost of living being so high, you would have to be making, let's say in Toronto, where you have the most economic opportunity and most job opportunity, the living wage here is about $24 an hour. Minimum wage is $15 an hour. So to live comfortably, living wages, to live comfortably, to be able to afford rent and the basic necessities is $24. But our minimum wages across the country are well below what the actual living wages and then our government benefits. 

So this is your welfare, for lack of a better term, your disability benefits across the country are again much. Even lower than minimum wages. So someone living off disability in Toronto, because perhaps they have, whether it be a mental or physical disability that inhibits them to be able to work properly, are living off less than one $500 a month, which is not even your rent in the city. So I do like to point out that we have a real problem with growing amounts of working poor people in this country. 

I have friends who are making $50,000, and ten years ago that would be a great job, but coupled with their student debt and the high cost of living, they are thinking about taking jobs on the weekend, which means they will be working seven days a week. So how much of it is work ethic and how much of it is we just have a broken system where every year things are getting more expensive, but the way we treat those up in the bottom are becoming more repressive and regressive, and we're not actually keeping wages and government benefits up with the cost of living. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Emilly, I want to ask you first about the point you raised about race and that playing a very big role in property writ large. Again, going back to the way in which the media looks at survey beneficiaries versus like the tax dodgers or the elite. Similarly, I find when it comes to the issue of race and poverty, not the backlash, but the response I get is, well, look at you, Christopher. Look at you, a person who's from a visible minority community, you quote unquote, made it. You're not in poverty. So there are opportunities for everyone. If only they worked harder, if only they did those other jobs more. How can it be a race thing when there are people who are non white in leadership positions or in positions of authority? How can there be poverty on the basis of racism when our society is the most equal and egalitarian has ever been? What say you to that characterization? 

Emilly Renaud:

Well, you can't just take one person's success and say, well, if you did it, everyone else can do it. So there's that. It really discredits people's real oppression that they have faced throughout their whole life. To say, well, if one person was able to make it through, everyone can. I think that's such honestly, an uneducated way to put this. There's no way that you can know the experience of every single racialized person in Canada. So there's that piece and then something that's just made me think, even if we took race out of the equation, we need more factory workers, frontline workers, which are the grocery store and customer service. 

We need more of those workers than we do lawyers or social workers or any other sector of employment that gets paid a little bit more than those grocery workers. So there is such a high demand, and we're seeing mass employment shortages for restaurants and the service sector because people have just, quite honestly, been fed up with the way they are treated and they're low wages. 

So they're trying to take advantage of training and education opportunities that the government offers to try to find higher paid jobs. But there will always be a big need for our service industry. So why even categorize these jobs as well? If you are a grocery store worker and you're unhappy with what you get paid, well, why don't you just get a better job? It's like, well, there is a need for a grocery store worker more so than there is for a lawyer. Like, we have such a huge surplus of teachers and lawyers in this country, but we need to be able to grow agriculture and have more infrastructure and more construction workers to better that infrastructure. So I take race out of the equation. Well, there's still the piece of the inequality across jobs in itself, that we need more jobs in certain sectors and we need others. But then we tell people, oh, just change your job, when well, we can't just have everyone be a lawyer.

Christopher Balkaran:

Yeah, it's so fascinating. You mentioned the migrant workers and the farming and agriculture across Canada. Do you think that, and forgive my ignorance, what Canada is doing when it comes to migrant workers and the wages they pay, or that the fact that it's not regulated by provincial minimum wage loss, is that, to your knowledge, similar to other Ga countries around the world? Or is Canada unique in that respect? 

Emilly Renaud:

I think Canada is a bit unique in that respect because our population is so low and because we have a pretty significant gap in workers for those farming sectors. Partially also because we're such an urbanized country, the majority of people live in cities. So I think Canada is unique. Now, this is, I'll be honest, an issue that I am personally new to is shedding light on the conditions of migrant workers and people who are undocumented. And part of the reason why this is such a new issue is because a lot of us just didn't understand what these migrant workers were living with, what they were getting paid, a lot of the conditions that they were going through in COVID, where they were contracting COVID, and where it could have been completely prevented. All of this is just very under the table. 

I think it's just now not to say that there haven't been dedicated advocates in public education out there for decades, but it is just now coming to the table as well. This is a major population in Canada. Thousands and thousands of people living in Canada on either work permits are undocumented who are living in these awful conditions and being paid well below minimum wage. So it is new to me. So I don't know enough about what other immigration and work systems are like in other countries, but I will say that I think because we have such a need for workers, we probably are less generous than some of the other developed or Western nations and let's say Europe would be.

Christopher Balkaran:

So it's fascinating because part of the sole mission of Canada without Poverty is to help educate, based on what we've discussed so far, those misperceptions, again, on race and the connection with poverty and the misperceptions or perhaps lack of education that a lot of Canadians have on migrant workers and migrant labor. It's not discussed in our school systems. It's not discussed anywhere. It's not even discussed in the media, really, unless there's a crisis or government increasing or decreasing funding. What tools does Canada without poverty do to help kind of bridge that gap so that more and more Canadians can understand the complexities of poverty in Canada for such a wealthy nation that we are? 

Emilly Renaud:

I think one major piece of advocacy we're doing right now is calling on the government to disaggregate the data in the census. So right now it just aggregates on gender. And we had progress where it's actually disaggregated not only on sex at birth, but also on gender identity. So we now have better ideas of trans people living in Canada. And from the recent 2021 census, we can now see how many trans people are living with certain incomes, and we can get a better understanding of how they are impacted by poverty, but we don't desegregate based off of race. 

So a lot of the stats and data that they do have is actually very specific targeted surveys. So they're not necessarily as statistically significant as the census that happens every five years would be. So that's one thing we call for, is we need to have a better understanding of the actual percentage of certain groups living in poverty. All the time people ask me, what is the percentage of black people in Toronto living in poverty? I'm like, I actually don't really have that answer for you. I wish I did. I have a few studies of sample surveys that people took that will give you a good idea. But there was no specifically significant statistics. Canada produced data on that. So I call for that. 

And then the other pieces are the qualitative pieces. The quantitative piece is really important, but also the qualitative. So I think one of our strengths has been bringing the voices of lived experience to the government decision making tables, to the centre of our public awareness campaign. We not only need to know the numbers, but we need to know what is actually happening and what it means to that individual. 

So always trying to highlight the voices of people living in poverty, always trying to ensure that we're centreing and not just an equity lens, but we're truly centreing equity and inclusion in our advocacy work and bringing the realities of people who are experiencing intersecting forms of oppression to the centre of our action so that's the other piece we do. So we try to advocate for both better qualitative data but also quantitative data through Canada. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Emilly, you're not the first person that I've had in this podcast that has talked to me about serious gaps. Not only that StatsCan has, but in other StatsCan organizations across the world. For the average citizen. Maybe they access it, maybe they don't. I think real value is to not for profit sector private organizations and anyone who's really interested. Because I've seen this many times when I've covered other topics that it seems that I don't want to make this political. But it does seem that a lot of Statscan go down that kind of political lens a little bit. Which is it kind of reinforces the government of the day's priorities and agenda and objectives. And I understand that, like, you get into power, there's a reality there. But when we're really trying to craft public policy, StatsCan has, in my opinion, that ability to be apolitical and say, this is the data. We are not making any judgments on the data. This is the data as it is, and we're going to ask questions, and you want to do it in a non biased way, but we're going to ask questions, and this is the data we get back. Instead, we consistently see gaps in the data that's being captured and being reported on. And I just find that fascinating that you mentioned that as well. 

Emilly Renaud:

Yeah. So Canada Without Poverty is a nonpartisan organization. So I don't want to call out any specific governments, but we have seen ebbs and flows and what Stats Canada has reported on. We saw in this millennia the complete cancellation of the census, which was just seen as a complete muffling of science. I mean, the census was just brought back in 2016, but we didn't have it for a good ten years. So it's really important for us, for our government, to look at Sets Canada as a completely independent reporting body. And we were very reliant on the data that comes out of Sets Canada because there's only so much of our own data collection we can do.

 And think tanks are very valuable, like the Fraser Institute, broadband Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives, because they have the resources to do some of their own surveys, but nothing that Canada sorry, Sussex Canada has. So it's unfortunate that they do, unfortunately, fall to that. What is the political conversation of the moment? And here is the studies we're going to do. I think it could be much more beneficial to our democracy if we just allowed them to do all of the studies that need to be done in a very much more objective way. Yeah, totally. 

Christopher Balkaran:

I wanted to chat with you about inflation, because inflation, the cost of living, is going up. I mean, it seems like everyday things are getting more expensive. A report came out yesterday that inflation actually went down from 8% to 7.6%. Like, really? I didn't notice that. And I don't think anyone else's but one thing that, again, I don't think has talked about enough is the impacts of inflation on low income families. And that specific groups, as we've discussed, face higher probabilities of poverty. Specific groups that face persistent low income than the general population include people with activity, limitations of physical or mental disability, single individuals, unattached individuals, persons in lone parent families, people with less than high school education, visible minorities who are immigrants. So these are very specific groups within groups that face what I find interesting is persistent low income. And that is something that is not discussed enough. So some think that low income is transitory. There are specific groups where it's persistent. I want to ask you what you've seen or what Canada Without Poverty has seen as some of the early impacts that maybe not these groups, but groups writ large when it comes to low income families are facing persistent poverty in this high inflationary environment. 

Emilly Renaud:

So I've been noticing that the media is loving this term. Everyone's feeling the pinch while people who are experiencing persistent poverty are dealing a punch, not just a pinch, because their benefits are orchestra for in. Their wages haven't increased at all in the last five years, if not longer, depending on your province. Some disability and welfare benefits have barely budged since the early 2010s. All of a sudden, if anything gets any more expensive, it's a huge impact on your day to day life. A lot of people living really who are experiencing poverty, the price of gas completely devastated them. It literally made home because they and this really impacts employment because most employers don't compensate you on your distance to work and if you're working really at a factory or an implant or what have you, and all of a sudden it costs twice as much money to get to work, that's going to really impede your weekly monthly income. 

So I don't think people could understand, like when you're making a minimum, rather a middle income wage or higher, you can sort of have some contingency to say, okay, my grocery bill is about $100 more expensive every month, but maybe I'll just pull back on other things or maybe I have a few less hundred and savings every month. Whereas people who are persistently low income have no room to pull back at all. They're just eating less, they're driving less, they are hopping transit so that they don't have to pay as much for their daily transit, which obviously won't be good if they end up getting fined. But many have no choice. They're not renewing the prescriptions. 

These are serious basic necessities that people are sacrificing. This isn't just, oh, we won't go to Cabo this year. This is some serious basic and critical needs that people are sacrificing because of inflation. And again, I'll say we all feel the pinch, but these groups are feeling like they're being punched by inflation. 

Christopher Balkaran:

I spoke with John Clarke, retired activists with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. Now a lecturer at York University. 

Emilly Renaud:

Yeah, he's actually an honorary board of directors for CWP. Fascinating. 

Christopher Balkaran:

One thing that he mentioned was that often when it comes to inflation, the poor are blamed for inflation because it's anti poverty groups that will start advocating for dramatic increases to the minimum wage, dramatic increases to social assistance, and the general public may perceive that as here's more money going into the economy and that's going to drive up inflation even more. Do you also see that as one of the common kind of critiques, criticisms, pushbacks when it comes to advocating for potentially more social assistance, higher minimum wage, livable wage for low income individuals and families? 

Emilly Renaud:

Something I really try to draw attention to is we've done a lot of surveys and discussions with people who received serve low income people of all kinds. Either people who were receiving income benefits and dependent on those provincial income benefits, or people who were working low wage jobs, or people who were just homeless and just happened to have a CRA account. So they applied. A lot of our surveys showed that what people bought went right back into the economy. They were buying food. And then I think the most luxurious and common thing we saw people buying were TVs because we were second home. And what else are you supposed to do but watch TV? 

People who didn't have WiFi were just paying for monthly WiFi every month. There certainly wasn't enough income flow to really increase inflation. And then further, when you think about it, these are basic necessities that we consider in middle income and upper income would consider things like WiFi and TV to be a basic necessity. And all of a sudden people were just having enough. And if we are allowing people to just have enough, impact our economy so much, again, we have a broken system. 

If all of a sudden people being able to access nutritious food is causing a food shortage, then there was something extremely wrong with our system. And that really ties back to inequality. All of a sudden our system is dependent on inequality because if all of a sudden everyone lived a livelihood of dignity and had enough to eat, then at the current pace, then yes, we would have mass shortage. But if some people just made a little bit less, if some company just made slightly fewer profits every year, and also if we just were better with our food waste management, then we wouldn't be experiencing these sort of supply and demand shortages that the media and the government is blaming for inflation. 

It's interesting you mentioned that because I find that when I look at how poor people are, I shouldn't say that when I look at how low income individuals and local families are perceived across Canada. It's very much a hand out, not a hand up. And I truly mean that. That's how I feel that that community is being perceived, that they're looking for these handouts. They're not looking to get out of it. They're looking for more. And I feel like what Candle Without Poverty is doing and what you've done in this conversation, 

Christopher Balkaran:

What would you say are the driving factors of those stereotypes when it comes to low income families and individuals? Why is it that especially in the middle class, we, I say we broadly, but why can't we seem to understand partly as multifaceted breaking down, understanding it as complex the same way we understand politics as complex, the economy as complex. When it comes to poverty, it's very much, oh, well, only again, if they worked hard, if they didn't ask so much from the government, they could get out of it. Why do we still have this kind of black and white view of poverty? 

Emilly Renaud:

There are many causes. I think a lot of it is just government programs that we kind of assume that government programs are in the best interest of people. But there has been a lot of history, especially for marginalized people in Canada, where government programs were literally designed to suppress and take away people's agency and ability to get ahead. I think not a lot of people realize that our social system across provinces again, I'll just say social welfare system because it's called something different in every province, is designed so that let's say you get $700 a month if you work at all, and that's not enough money to live off. If you work at all, every dollar is clawed back. So no matter what, you're only being able to make $700 a month. 

It's extremely hard to get ahead and get off a system that literally doesn't let you get off the system. And if you're a marginalized person, again, you're facing barriers to training in education. College and university costs are so high, if you have a child, your whole life has to revolve around being available for that child. So it might make it difficult to take certain jobs rather than others. Especially, again, if you don't have as much education or training or experience, it might make getting certain jobs extremely hard due to the competition. And then also your family requirements. 

And then there are also just a lot of people who are not able to work, are not very functional. And I think a lot of European nations have acknowledged that there might be a few people in our society who just cannot, for lack of a better term, contribute. But what kind of a nation would we be if we allowed them to live in impoverished conditions? We have to take care of everyone. Otherwise where is our humanity? 

So I think that's a discourse that in North America, we haven't really adopted. I think that's a discourse we get a lot from our Southern partners in the US. A very regressive and repressive idea of everyone for themselves, and if you can't help yourself, then no one else can help you. We'd like to differentiate ourselves from the States, but we are more like the States in that sentiment than we are to any country in Europe who has a lot more robust, just and equitable programs in their nations that actually ensure that people can they're not perfect, but ensure that people have their basic needs and human rights met. So I think there's not a lot of addressing that government programs themselves are keeping people in poverty. It's what we call the legislative poverty when it comes to indigenous peoples in Canada, it's a whole different story. 

There's countless evidence that there has been programs that literally took away thriving economies on reserves or in indigenous communities and sort of kept them in these impoverished conditions. And to this day, I don't think we fully acknowledge that enough. And by we, I mean the government does not fully acknowledge that enough because it wasn't really the general public that did that. But, yeah, it's a broad question, and I think there's many reasons why, but I think at the end of the day, we're a lot more selfish and individualistic than I think we want to think we are. 

Christopher Balkaran:

When we look at the research, when we look at the numbers, and we look at what's happening, just totally different than perhaps what our own perceptions are. I wanted to end this conversation, another big question for you, and that's housing. 

So we both know housing is a big issue here in the city of Toronto. It is very unaffordable to live. I just saw rents in my neighborhood go up from $1,700 during the pandemic now to $2,400. And I anticipate it's going to keep going up at least for the few months ahead. I can't imagine what this is doing to those that are making less than $30,000. The basic amount of social assistance here in Canada, Ontario, for a single individual is $1,169. Again, it's very low. What do you see, given this high inflationary environment, high cost of living, as some opportunities that governments can consider to help low income families and individuals with their housing needs right now? 

Emilly Renaud:

Well, a lot more action needs to be funneled into deeply affordable housing. And this is a really important distinction because right now, when the government says we are offering below market housing or at market housing, there's not enough clarification that the market rate is in itself affordable. So saying something is 10% below market is still unaffordable to a lot of people. 

So I think people need to understand that when we're basing housing costs off of the market, which is already so inflated, that doesn't mean because it's 10% lower than the market, that does not mean it's affordable. So we need to be looking at what people are actually making in this country or in this province or in the city and trying to implement housing policies that actually match those incomes. This is definitely more of a big government initiative, but a lot more seizing of land and unused land and unused buildings and office buildings. 

There's a huge opportunity right now to see some office buildings that so many sectors have switched to remote work and turn them into public housing and not sell them to the private sector, but turn them into government regulated, affordable housing for people who are in critical need. 

So a lot more attention needs to be made to that. You're based in Toronto and based in Toronto. Encampments is a huge thing here. Well, they will continue to grow if we don't address the issue. And when you want to evict Encampments, they're just going to go to another park, another strip of street. There's nowhere else for them to go. So we need to be addressing this issue. It's not just going to get swept under the rug or disappear. It's going to exacerbate an increase and at the end of the day, a real opportunity as well as for the governments to realize that housing is a human right. 

The government of Canada has committed to the UN Declaration of Human Rights in that declaration recognizing the right to housing that everyone needs to have an adequate, affordable and accessible house. And the government has certain levels of government committed to an accountability mechanism so that if the government isn't meeting the needs for housing for people, then they can say, okay, we are failing. Accountability mechanisms are really important for that because otherwise policy promises can be thrown out in the air. But then who is responsible? So yeah, two fold, addressing critical and deeply affordable housing needs and then recognizing that housing is a human right and that if we use that as an accountability framework for our policies, it could really strengthen our political will towards addressing housing, not just for the middle class who want to buy a house, but for people who need to afford rent. Again, so fascinating. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Our governments operate on four year cycle and that's kind of the challenge. I've always wondered, again, congrats to my algorithm theory, is that can we craft policy that is truly apolitical and it just withstands the test of time and the person who comes in next just care takes that algorithm role. So it's like you're right, there's a lot of offices that are now vacant. Can that be reused for public housing? Can we commit to some 5-10 year strategy, long term strategy to do a portion of all unused and vacant buildings to that and it's kind of like occupancy goes and we'll see how that solves some of the tries to address some of those needs, but let's keep it needs focused based on what individuals and families actually need. Again, pie in the sky thinking, but I think that's where our government should go. The last question I want to ask you quickly, I know we're over time, so thank you.

Emilly Renaud:

So right now, again, we're switching focus away from our main mission was just to have some sort of national poverty reduction or poverty vacation strategy. And that actually for a Dignity for Gold campaign. We won that. And the government did release something in 2016, the first national anti poverty or poverty reduction strategy. And since then we've been really trying to position ourselves as an accountability body to hold the government accountable to the promises and commitments while also pushing them to make more concrete promises and commitments. So they committed to reducing poverty by 50%. We're asking them to push that even further. 

We're asking them to develop specific targets and timelines to ensure that people in marginalized communities are also going to be addressed. Because if we say poverty reduction by will not only be white people and privileged people or will that be people living in indigenous communities, will that be our racialized newcomers, etc. So trying to really highlight the specific realities of poverty and the need to address poverty in not just an equal way, but in an equitable way, we're also looking now I always say that it's so hard to be an expert in poverty because it looks so different in so many different communities and different terrains across the country. 

But now, just to make my job even harder, we're having to look at climate change and how that's going to impact marginalized communities, especially migrant workers who are working out in really extreme weather conditions. Sometimes the impact that that's going to have on hydro, just our ability to access energy, looking at how climate change and interests are very much focused on the middle class. So instead of investing in more affordable transit, we're talking about electric cars. That's going to help. 

It's like such a small percentage of the issue. If we all switch to electric cars, well, there's a lot of people who can't even afford a car to begin with. So those are the big pieces is we have a lot of money. In this country. As we said at the beginning of the podcast, we just need to muster the political will and the public will to address these issues of poverty. We don't necessarily need to even grow our GDP to do this. 

We just need to have more equality, more will to address poverty, more policy rooted in human rights framework so that they are held accountable to international treaties and international commitments if the government fails. There's some finger pointing that we can do otherwise. Again, these promises just kind of go in the air. Yeah, a lot of help. That's incredible. 

Christopher Balkaran:

Emilly in April, I did a podcast with Gordon Bauer, who is a researcher on electric vehicles and the impact it has for long term families and individuals and the work that needs to be done. When we talk about charging infrastructure, we talk about more floods everywhere. Well, what about apartment buildings? What about places where people are living together to retrofit those? How come that's not being discussed as much? And why the price for electric vehicles? There's a big push for everyone to go electric, but the price point is just, in some cases, 30, 40% higher than we could talk about forever.

I cannot believe the ground we cover in an hour. I am out of breath. I can imagine. So I'm going to let you go. But thank you again for shedding light on all the great work that Canada Without Poverty is doing. I'll leave links to everything in the show notes of this podcast below. Thanks again for being on and sharing what you have. And I'm sure that this won't be our last conversation, so thanks again.