From the Missing Election Issues File: Poverty Reduction

By Seth Klein

It’s odd to see Stephen Harper continuing to crow about his economic management prowess, even while almost 1.5 million Canadians remain unemployed, nearly one in ten people live in poverty, and according to one recent survey one-third of Canadians can’t afford basic expenses.

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

For their part, the opposition parties have some good poverty reduction commitments and policy measures in their platforms, but they haven’t highlighted these issues in their campaigns. That’s too bad. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ recent polling work with Environics indicated that a substantial majority of Canadians want to see strong federal leadership on poverty reduction, with solid targets and timelines. But if the parties aren’t championing these issues, this desire has no way of finding political expression. And so the issue fails to register on the political radar.

The CCPA’s Alternative Federal Budget (AFB), 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 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 people 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.

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 at www.policyalternatives.ca/afb2011 to see the specific policy actions proposed to meet these targets.)

The political momentum to tackle poverty is growing.  Seven provinces and two territories have poverty reduction plans in place or in development. But while most provincial governments have taken the lead (BC being a notable exception), the job cannot be completed without the active partnership of the federal government.

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. Consequently, civil society groups as are asking Canadians to vote to Make Poverty History (see www.makepovertyhistory.ca).

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.




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