EMERGENCY: a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.
As wildfires decimated communities this summer, thousands made use of emergency services -- the makeshift shelters, donated food, and volunteer-prepared meals.
Emergencies like this help frame an uncomfortable juxtaposition affecting millions of Canadians. What do we mean by "emergency"? And what happens without immediate action?
The Stop has been running a food bank for over 30 years. With help from students at the University of Toronto's School of Public Policy, we recently asked community members about our emergency response. We provide healthy food, but our monthly hampers last three days. We wanted to know what happens the other 27 days. The results speak to that uncomfortable juxtaposition, because for the more than 840,000 Canadians using food banks monthly, this is a predictable emergency.
Most significant in the results was the staggering low income and normalization of food insecurity. Eighty per cent of people surveyed reported an annual income below $20,000, and 12 per cent had no money ever for food. The monthly average spent was $167, which, according to Toronto Public Health, is enough to feed a nine-year-old child. Just.
The other 27 days, people reduced portions and half skipped meals. At least one day a month, 24 per cent went an entire day without eating anything.
Despite this, only 25 per cent considered themselves to be moderately food insecure, pointing to a normalization of hunger and poverty.
This is not an 'emergency,' but the predictable result of poverty, a slow-burning fire, affecting one in eight Canadian households. More than 30 years on, we refer to food banks as emergency response. Is that what we mean? Is it time to call out this dangerous misnomer and the inadequate national response it has fostered?
Getting here was a perfect storm. Food banks appeared because our income support systems did not meet the enormous needs of the 1980s recession.
In the 1990s, our federal government turned its back on critical nation-building. Since the 1940s, we had been a savvy investor in housing, supporting home ownership and social housing. By the end of the 1990s, that had effectively ended, and when our national housing program was cut, the federal government responded to homelessness by building emergency shelters, not housing.
Federal cuts to transfer payments and changes in our long-standing obligation for provinces and territories to ensure livable social assistance saw rates slashed and bus tickets offered to welfare recipients willing to leave their provinces.
Instead of eventually closing, food banks became well-oiled machines, allowing governments to side-step a growing social policy sinkhole. It took less than a generation to swap foundational investments like housing and adequate standards of living for shelters, food banks, and the normalization of poverty.
This week marks the 8th International Basic Income Week, and there are increasing Canadian efforts focusing on basic income, including Food Secure Canada's #EatThinkVote campaign. Our experience with "Mincome" is worthy of national consideration.
Funded by the federal and Manitoba governments, the 1970s project set out to determine if a guaranteed income would lead people to stop working. Some did -- new mothers and teenagers, who, relieved of the need to support their families, stayed in school. Overall, there were more high school graduates, and 8.5 per cent fewer hospital visits.
The connection to health care is important since we spend $7 billion nationally on poverty-related illnesses. Recently, 194 Ontario doctors urged the provincial Minister of Health to consider a basic income pilot. What is obvious to doctors should be obvious to us all. Our spending on emergency room visits and shelters would be better invested in people before they got sick. Build a more solid foundation and avoid the much higher costs when lives fall apart. Which brings us back to the notion of 'emergency'.
In 1946, George Orwell made the case for clear language: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." So let's be clear.
Food banks have become embedded in our national psyche, not because of an emergency, but because of a policy choice that means millions of Canadians are hungry. An entirely predictable outcome.
With a month to go in this election, can we change course on emergency responses and look at basic income as a way of building a solid floor for all Canadians to stand on? Let's tell the truth. Let's push the next government back to better investment strategies and a more Canadian approach to nation-building.
ALSO ON HUFFPOST: