06/05/2014 01:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:00 EDT

Banks Should Offer No-Fee Accounts To All Poor Canadians

The common good, by definition, requires each of us to fulfill our public responsibilities. Not just some of us. And not just government.

Last week, Finance Minister Joe Oliver announced that eight of Canadian largest banks would voluntarily introduce low-cost and no-fee bank accounts to some low-income Canadians.

Yet the majority of low-income Canadians were excluded. The accounts, not to be implemented until 2015, are only for low-income seniors and youth.

These banks should extend this benefit to the large number of Canadians between the ages of 18 and 65 who are also currently living in poverty. It is critical that services for low-income people are universal and not create divisions between the deserving and the un-deserving poor.

While recent policies have reduced poverty among children and seniors, income supports for working-age individuals have been cut back. Today there are over a million single working-age Canadians living in poverty. And many more low-income families. Most within these two groups won't benefit from this service, yet together they make up about 90% of people living in poverty.

This move represents an important recognition by both the Minister of Finance and the Canadian banking community of the needs of people living in poverty. In a letter to the CEOs of these eight banks, Citizens for Public Justice's (CPJ) Board Chair, Will Postma, thanked the banks for taking this step to, "deliver accessible services for those Canadians for whom every dollar counts." But Postma also pointed to the need to, "widen the net of benefit to include the many more Canadians who are also low-income."

These kinds of voluntary actions on the part of the private sector are never a replacement for the key role government plays. As Canada Without Poverty points out, "it will be difficult to effectively implement these changes without concrete guidelines and bank policies in place." Good government should ensure access to public services that benefit all while enabling the private sector to do their part in meeting community needs.

So let's care for the poor and marginalized in a way that all, not just some, can live with dignity. It is, after all, a central responsibility of our individual and corporate citizenship.