Hunger Games – No Way Out

by Glen

Budgets are infernal things and in times of economic hardship can either rescue a troubled economy or prolong it. And in a world where governments ever have an eye toward the next election and big business runs on quarterly projections, budgets inevitably have a particular audience in mind to improve their ratings and their fortunes, regardless of long-term consequences.

With the case of the Finance Minister’s budget announcement it’s clear he wasn’t speaking to Canada’s less-fortunate, other than to encourage them to keep a stiff upper lip – the hunger games will continue. For whatever reason, governments continue to justify cuts to the poor or marginalized under the rubric that we all have sacrifices to make if we hope to balance the books. The trouble is those with the fewest resources have very little to contribute to the effort and the cuts have a proportionally more devastating effect.

Just take hunger as one troubling example. This past year saw food prices rise approximately 8% in Canada overall. But the real story is in the trend over the long-term. Consider how these prices have risen in just the last ten years:

  • Chicken – 71%
  • Ground beef – 103%
  • Sugar – 61%
  • Toothpaste – 50%
  • Butter – 50%
  • Bread – 102%
  • Eggs – 68%
  • Potatoes – 84%
  • Apples – 39%
  • Carrots – 47%

These increases have been tough enough for an average family to handle in the past decade of decline let alone a family or individuals living below the poverty line. The recent Ontario budget opted to freeze the child tax benefit as a restraint measure, despite the fact that its proposed increase this year would have provided much-needed relief with cost of living increases. The choice to freeze Ontario Works and Ontario Disability benefits will spell similar trouble for struggling families.

The recent federal budget was deafening in its silence towards those struggling on the margins. The signs of laissez-faire for the poor and hungry were everywhere between its lines. Clearly the budget wasn’t shaped to affect this struggling portion of society. It was the government’s prerogative to take such a course, but, as with any major financial statement and direction, there will be winners and there will be losers. Again, the poor lose in Budget 2012. Canada’s most highly paid executives will still average $6.6 million a year. The average Canadian will receive $42,988. And the poor will remain stuck below the poverty line. This budget didn’t change any of that.

Farmers by the tens of thousands will continue getting out of the business in this country – a reality unchanged by this budget. Urban poverty, homelessness, the decline of mental health supports, the stubborn refusal to establish a national affordable housing strategy – these realities didn’t even garner mention in the document. To trumpet the reality that economic policies have resulted in low inflation is a misnomer. Every family is feeling the pinch of seeing prices on things like food and gas that they use each day continue to escalate, with warnings that this trend will only continue.

For those who are hungry, Jim Flaherty’s budget reminded them to just get used to those pangs, as when he instigated budgets as Ontario’s finance minister that saw food bank numbers skyrocket within months. Seniors frequenting feeding agencies is now expected to escalate as a result of budget changes. More and more clients are visiting the country’s food banks that were working only a year ago. The entire Canadian economy created 14,100 jobs since July of last year, yet Flaherty’s budget will eliminate 19,200 jobs with one stroke of his very sharp pencil. Many of those families will face the one choice they never dreamed of having to make – visit a food bank to feed their kids.

In this past year, food prices globally rose an astonishing 37%, and with fuel prices consistently on the rise we are being warned in this country about a steep escalation in the costs of food. Was there a plan in the budget for this? No? Anything about adopting progressive policies on alternative energies that would eventually lower food prices? Again, no.  Any federal funds to support small farms, community gardens in communities, infrastructure repair between cities and their rural surrounds? Ne’er a mention.

And so the hunger games continue. In a land of such abundance that has grown food that once fed half the world, we have just passed a budget that says we can now no longer feed our own. The hunger games are on, with a riveting plot between the hunter and the hunted, the full and the famished.

Dan Bennett once said that, “The trouble with a budget is that it’s hard to fill up one hole without digging another.” Budget 2012 didn’t so much dig a new hole as it made what presently exists deeper and all the more impossible to climb out of. This was a budget that chose the affluent over the anguished, the moneyed class over the marginalized, the hoarders over the hungry. This isn’t a best-selling book, or even a high-grossing film. It’s the reality for millions of Canadians, 40% of whom are children.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Brundtland once said, “An important lever for sustained action in tackling poverty and reducing hunger is money.” Budget 2012 just ensured that the money is heading in the opposite direction.