As part of our Vital Conversations series, The Winnipeg Foundation often invites those affiliated with a particular topic to further share their thoughts.
Why are poor people poor?
Many of us who work alongside people experiencing poverty see daily how our systems create, perpetuate, and exacerbate poverty. But what do we mean when we say that poverty is systemic?
Take our Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) system as an example – commonly referred to as welfare. EIA is a system of last resort for people with barriers to financial independence. These barriers can include lack of access to child care, a mental illness, an addiction, a physical disability, or racism. People with these barriers and without personal or social networks may end up dependent on EIA.
Single individuals on EIA live with monthly incomes that are almost 50% below the poverty line – equal to $791. People living with a disability are not much better off with $1,011. These amounts overstate EIA incomes as they include other commonly available government income benefits. Parents on EIA are in a better position because of federal child benefits, but they still live below the poverty line.
While some people spend only a short time on EIA, many become trapped in this system because of its design. With incomes so low, many live in an ongoing state of crisis just to meet basic needs (eg. housing, food), making it almost impossible to pursue training and work that would lead to financial independence. For people with disabilities with barriers to employment, dependence on low EIA rates condemns them to a life of poverty.
It’s not just low EIA rates that perpetuate poverty and an ongoing reliance on EIA, it’s the complexity of the system and its punitive rules that make it harder for families to get out of the system and get ahead. For example, deducting child support payments, dollar for dollar, from a parent’s monthly EIA income. And reducing EIA incomes by 70 cents for every dollar earned through work after earning $200 in wages, which creates a disincentive to work.
Make Poverty History Manitoba, a local anti-poverty coalition, believes that one solution would be to have a Livable Basic Needs Benefit that lifts Manitobans up to at least the poverty line, and is delivered by a system that prioritizes ease of access and dignity.
If the system was designed to ensure people received enough income to meet their basic needs, they would be in a more stable position from which they could take steps to come out of poverty and thrive, rather than spending time navigating a complicated system and searching for other social services just to survive.
Kirsten Bernas, Make Poverty History Manitoba, was a panelist for The Winnipeg Foundation’s Vital Conversation – Your Winnipeg in 2030: Making Poverty History.