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Who Qualifies as Poor in Canada?

A BOOK questioning how poverty is measured in Canada has sparked a debate over just who is poor in a country with so many safety nets, from welfare to subsidized housing to free health care.

"Poverty in Canada" argues that the estimates of poverty by various social groups and Statistics Canada, a government agency, are "grossly exaggerated."

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"The fact is that poverty, as it has been traditionally understood, has been virtually eliminated," writes Christopher Sarlo, a professor of economics at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ontario. "It is simply not a major problem in Canada." Fifteen percent in poverty

The poverty line for a family of four in Canada has been put by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD), an independent research and advocacy group, at $26,941 (Canadian; US$22,595) a year. That means that in one of the richest countries in the world 15.4 percent of the population is defined as living in poverty.

Professor Sarlo says the poverty line for that family should be $13,140. The poor would then be just 2.5 percent of the population. He calculated what it costs to feed, house, and clothe the family in a number of Canadian cities, and left a little over for extras.

Poverty groups say he is wrong.

"We define poverty in relative terms, how low-income groups measure up to the rest of society," says Patrick Johnston, head of the CCSD in Ottawa.

"There's a real problem with the relative approach," Sarlo says. "The social welfare groups have redefined poverty as inequality, so we end up with a definition of poverty that is high."

The poverty activists say Sarlo is shortchanging poor people by defining poverty as a subsistence level of living.

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"As part of his calculation Professor Sarlo says food costs are about $20 a week per person. I think Canadians would question that," Mr. Johnston says.

But the author says he practices what he preaches and feeds his family of four on just such a budget.

"If you follow the Canada Food Guide for a nutritious diet, you shouldn't have to spend more than $20 a week per person. We operate within that range," says Sarlo of his wife and children. "It doesn't include restaurant meals, of course."

In his book Sarlo gives examples of people measured as living below the poverty line but who he would not define as poor. There is an older couple who have an income of $14,500 a year, well below the poverty line. But since their house is paid for, they live well, take vacations, and suffer no privations.

Sarlo says that Statistics Canada and the poverty groups do not take into account factors such as mortgage-free housing.

Sarlo also gives the example of a student who lives at home part time and receives government grants and loans but still ends up $9,000 below the poverty line.

"The students are a classic," he says. "Ten to 20 percent of our poor are college and university students."

He gives his own students an example of what he sees as the flawed method of measuring poverty.

"If everyone's real income doubled, we would have no less poverty by the current definition. You would have people who are twice as well off but none of whom would have moved above the poverty line."

But perhaps what most annoys poverty activists is Sarlo's charge that they benefit from the way poverty is now measured.

"Some of the social welfare people who administer programs would like poverty to be defined sufficiently high so that there's an ongoing number of poor, otherwise their jobs are in jeopardy," Sarlo says. Social workers offended

"I'm offended by the accusation that my organization or I are profiting by the number of poor in this country," Johnston says. "You have to ask about the ultra-conservative philosophy of the Fraser Institute [which published the book] and how this book fits it."

"There is poverty," Sarlo says. "People struggling with addiction, people thrown out of their homes, young people who can't get jobs or welfare, but not a massive amount - perhaps less than 2 percent of the population."

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