An agreed-upon description of poverty

When older women on the Isle of Mann were polled as to whether dressing gowns are a basic life necessity, their agreement was nearly unanimous. If someone who couldn’t afford a housecoat, they were poor. However when young men were asked the same question, their response unsurprisingly was almost the mirror opposite. À chaque son goût?

Defining poverty is a difficult task for government statisticians and policy wonks, never mind the rest of us.

Two of the best thinkers on the topic, Richard Shillington and John Stapleton, recently published a Metcalf Foundation-funded paper, Cutting through the Fog: Why is it so hard to make sense of poverty measures? In clear language, they explain how some basic assumptions shape how poverty is defined in Canada. Therefore, because each definition of poverty leads to different policy resolutions, the authors conclude that, without an agreed upon definition of poverty line, Canadians will continue to be stymied in our actions to solve poverty.

Over the course of the past two years, taking a leaf from the British and European work on social exclusion, Toronto’s Daily Bread Food Bank took a stab at improving our income-based definitions of poverty. Together with Caledon Institute for Social Policy, they built an Ontario Deprivation Index, and then, piloted it with Statistics Canada through the Labour Force Survey.

The new index developed a common list of ten items which are most likely to distinguish the poor from the non-poor. The work now stands as a key part of the Ontario government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. The first provincial report was released last December and found that one in eight children live in a deprived situation. By its own reports, the government is committed to lowering this number.

The Ontario Deprivation Index will let us know if we have made a difference.

Families are considered poor if they cannot afford two of the following items:

  • Do you eat fresh fruit and vegetables every day?
  • Are you able to get dental care if needed?
  • Do you eat meat, fish or a vegetarian equivalent at least every other day?
  • Are you able to replace or repair broken or damaged appliances such as a vacuum or a toaster?
  • Do you have appropriate clothes for job interviews?
  • Are you able to get around your community, either by having a car or by taking the bus or an equivalent mode of transportation?
  • Are you able to have friends or family over for a meal at least once a month?
  • Is your house or apartment free of pests, such as cockroaches?
  • Are you able to buy some small gifts for family or friends at least once a year?
  • Do you have a hobby or leisure activity?
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