From The Missing Issues File: Poverty Reduction

Seems odd that Harper would crow about his economic management, even while about 1.5 million Canadians remain unemployed. Nor would the government be well-advised to draw attention to our persistently high rate of poverty.

Yet isn’t dealing with such issues at the heart of what we look for in economic management?

The opposition parties all have some good poverty reduction commitments and policy measures in their platforms, but they have not highlighted these issues in their campaigns. That’s too bad. The CCPA’s polling work a couple years ago with Environics indicated that Canadians want to see strong federal leadership on poverty reduction (with solid targets and timelines), but if the political parties aren’t highlighting such issues in their campaigns, this desire has no way of finding political expression. And so the issue fails to register

The CCPA’s Alternative Federal Budget, in contrast, makes poverty reduction one of its central objectives.

The need for a federal plan is clear: In 2008 (the latest year for which we have statistics), the national poverty rate (using Statistics Canada’s after-tax low-income cut-off) was 9.4% (up from 9.2% in 2007). That’s over three million Canadians, about 600,000 of whom are children (and in First Nations families, one in four children lives in poverty). The 2008 numbers also show the number of elderly living below the poverty line spiked by 25%, the first major increase in decades.

The recession took hold in October of 2008, and there is every reason to believe that the poverty rate since then will continue to climb (2009 data will be released in a couple months). For millions of Canadians, the economic crisis is far from over. Hundreds of thousands of the unemployed are exhausting their EI coverage, and discovering a provincial social assistance system that is a shadow of what it was in the recession of the early 1990s. Those in desperate need of income support, due to the loss of a job, the loss of a spouse, the loss of good health, old age, or any number of other life circumstances, find that the social safety net meant to catch them has been shredded.

Between 1997 and 2007, the Canadian economy enjoyed the most sustained period of robust growth since the 1960s, yet poverty remained persistently high, homelessness grew, and the country witnessed unprecedented growth in income inequality.

While some are calling for austerity measures to reduce government deficits, the AFB rejects such an approach as a false economy. Poverty costs the public treasury and society at large (in higher health and criminal justice costs, lost productivity, and untapped human potential), while boldly tackling poverty represents a wise investment, as well as a moral and human rights imperative.

A meaningful poverty reduction plan must have legislated and clear targets and timelines. The benchmarks must be concrete enough, and frequent enough, that the government can be held accountable for progress within its mandate. The AFB proposed the following key targets:

•       Reduce Canada’s poverty rate by 25% within five years, and by 75% within a decade.

•       In two years, ensure every person in Canada has an income that reaches at least 75% of the poverty line.

•       In two years, ensure no one has to sleep outside, and end all homelessness within ten years by ensuring all people who are homeless have good quality, appropriate housing.

Check out the AFB itself to see the specific policy actions proposed to meet these targets.

Spearheaded nationally by organizations such as Make Poverty History, Canada Without Poverty, Citizens for Public Justice, and Campaign 2000, civil society groups across the country are demanding that the federal government step up with a concrete strategy.

The political momentum to tackle poverty is growing.  Seven provinces and two territories — Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba, P.E.I., Yukon and Nunavut —have poverty reduction plans in place or in development. But while most provincial governments have taken the lead (my home province of BC being a notable exception), the job cannot be completed without the active partnership of the federal government. Indeed, it is the Government of Canada’s responsibility to lead the poverty reduction charge with respect to Aboriginal poverty, seniors’ poverty, child poverty, and poverty among recent immigrants and people with disabilities. The economic security of Canadians should not depend on the part of Canada in which one resides.

But the Harper government has ignored repeated calls to take action.

In November 2009, the House of Commons passed a motion with all-party support directing it to “develop an immediate plan to eliminate poverty in Canada for all”. In December 2009, a report from the Senate Subcommittee on Cities also urged the federal government to adopt a poverty eradication goal. Most recently, this past  November, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, and the Status of Persons with Disabilities (the HUMA Committee) released its excellent and long-awaited final report on the federal role in poverty reduction. Its core recommendation: “that the federal government join with the provinces to introduce an action plan for reducing poverty in Canada.”

Sadly, the government’s official response to the HUMA report last month amounted to a polite brush off. Dennis Howlett, national coordinator of Make Poverty History, reacted: “We had hoped that the government would see the need for a response that went beyond narrow labour market and economic security measures, especially after so many Canadians wrote to Minister Finley and their MPs calling for the federal government to take leadership on a national poverty reduction plan. Instead, our concerns have been confirmed. The government appears unmoved by either the facts or the wishes of Canadians, and prefers to let this report and its 58 excellent recommendations gather dust. We plan to make sure it will be an issue that can’t be ignored in the next federal election.” They are asking Canadians to vote to Make Poverty History here.

There is nothing inevitable about poverty and homelessness in a country as wealthy as ours. It would be nice to hear our political leaders strongly making this point. If we commit to a bold plan, a dramatic reduction in poverty and homelessness within a few short years is a perfectly achievable goal.

Seth Klein is the CCPA’s British Columbia Director.

2 comments

  1. I remember a study not long ago (UNESCO or some other fly-by-night outfit) that seemed to show that Zounds! poverty rates seem to drop when governments spend money on poverty-fighting programs. The rates seemed inversely proportional to the amount of money spent. Who’da thought, eh?

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