That old, well-loved union song "The Banks Are Made of Marble" still applies. At present, of course, the banks are now more often made of glass and steel. Their vaults are largely virtual, just numbers on a screen. But the workers—and the unemployed—are still sweating. And the banks are still raking it in. Oh, are they ever.
The phrase the media loves these days when referring to bank profits is “they beat expectations.” Toronto-Dominion, for example, hauled in a $2.96 billion profit in the last quarter of this year, up from $2.71 billion last year. The Royal Bank of Canada took in a record yearly profit of $12.4 billion. Profits also rose for the National Bank of Canada, with a third-quarter profit 10% higher than a year ago.
The banks luxuriate in a self-made paradise of milk and honey. But it is a paradise forbidden to the rest of us.
Those less fortunate have to rely on a different kind of bank entirely. In Canada’s capital city, 38,400 people access the Ottawa Food Bank every month, 35% of whom are children. The demand is steadily rising, while the cost of food has been skyrocketing.
The first Canadian food bank opened in 1981 in Edmonton. It was to be a "temporary measure."
Now Canada has more than 550 food banks. More than 860,000 Canadians depend on them to survive. This includes families with kids, people on social assistance, many living on a fixed income (like seniors and people with disabilities), and the working poor who don’t make enough to cover food, rent and other basic living costs. The number of food banks (and those accessing them) has risen by 30% since 2008.
In Ontario, a supposed “have” province, the situation is getting worse. The Ontario Association of Food Banks has just released its annual Hunger Report for 2018. It makes grim reading. Between April 2017 and March 2018, nearly three million visits were made to an Ontario food bank, by more than half a million individuals. The number of seniors accessing food banks has gone up by 10% over last year. As in the rest of the country, social housing is lacking, and pensions are not keeping up.
The Ottawa Food Bank’s own 2018 report on Ottawa, another dismal collection of facts and statistics, is entitled Food Banks Do More As Governments Do Less, which really sums up the problem in a nutshell.
Food banks began as emergency assistance in 1981, but they soon became a permanent feature of the austerity landscape. Food insecurity, affecting more than 4 million Canadians, is or should be a national scandal.
But governments have allowed inequality to grow and remain high, while doing little in the way of concrete measures to alleviate poverty. In fact, they’ve gone the other way, weakening public social services to the breaking point, and targeting the poor with cuts.
In Ontario, for example, almost as soon as it came into power, the new Progressive Conservative government cancelled a promised minimum wage increase, and cut a planned increase in social assistance rates. The pressure on vulnerable Ontarians, under Premier Doug Ford, is only expected to get worse.
Federally, the Liberal government talks about national strategies to alleviate poverty, but it’s the wealthy who are getting a $14 billion tax break, and who enjoy on-going tax avoidance loopholes. Finance Minister Bill Morneau crows that Canadian workers are enjoying strong wage growth—but as it turns out, that’s the opposite of the truth.
Increased food bank use is a symptom of poverty and growing inequality. While there is clearly no lack of Canadian wealth (swelling bank profits are a pretty good indication of that), it’s in fewer and fewer hands. Two-thirds of the more than $10 trillion of Canadian wealth is owned by only 20% of the population.
Putting that in sharper focus, the top 90 families in Canada have as much wealth as the entire populations of Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. We can all guess which kind of bank they use.
(Originally published by The Canadian Labour Institute, this article was circulated by the Canadian Association of Labour Media, of which People's Voice is a member.)
(The above article is from the February 1-14, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)