Activists strengthen anti-poverty legislation

TheStar.com – Opinion – Activists strengthen anti-poverty legislation
May 07, 2009.   Greg deGroot-Magetti, Sarah Blackstock

The historic Poverty Reduction Act passed this week with the support of all three political parties. This important legislation requires the Ontario government, now and for years to come, to create and implement poverty reduction strategies. No longer can poverty be ignored.

When Bill 152, the Poverty Reduction Act, was introduced in the Legislature in February by minister Deb Matthews, many in the anti-poverty movement were concerned. The legislation was seen as a good first step but not nearly the strong and visionary framework that activists and people living in low-income situations had hoped for.

In response, anti-poverty activists around Ontario joined together to generate proposals for how the legislation should be improved. They lobbied all political parties to ensure their voices were heard. And, over two days of public hearings, the all-party Standing Committee on Social Policy heard a unified and coherent message – from faith groups, unions and housing advocates, to people with disabilities, First Nations and social planners. More than 40 groups from across the province came together to tell government why and how the legislation had to be strengthened.

And the committee listened. As a result of a tremendous community effort and the willingness of all parties to listen, important amendments were made to the Poverty Reduction Act that will ensure the people of Ontario possess a powerful tool to hold current and future governments’ feet to the fire when it comes to poverty reduction.

The Poverty Reduction Act was amended to commit Ontario to aspire to be “a leading jurisdiction in reducing poverty.” Being a leader means Ontario will have to take bold steps because there is a lot of catching up to be done. Governments both in Canada and around the world have taken up the call to reduce poverty, and much of that work will provide a good standard by which to measure the Ontario government’s progress.

The Poverty Reduction Act was also amended to recognize the importance of reducing not just child poverty, but adult poverty as well.

Also of importance is an amendment that strengthens the acknowledgement of the significance of discrimination and the need for particular attention to be paid to the barriers faced by disadvantaged groups.

During the committee process, the bill’s commitment to consultation was strengthened and a clause was amended that now requires Ontarians and, in particular, low-income people, not just to be consulted but to be involved in the design and implementation of poverty reduction strategies.

A new clause that requires the government to report annually to the Legislature on poverty reduction progress will better ensure public accountability.

And the legislation now provides for specific timelines for annual reporting, which will be helpful to advocates in their efforts not just to keep government accountable, but also to ensure poverty reduction work keeps moving forward in ambitious, progressive and transparent ways.

These are important changes. But the legislation is still far from perfect.

The lack of an independent review will mean that the government will report on its own progress. Activists had argued independent assessment would provide a fuller and more candid analysis – and that the success of future strategies depends on solid evidence and analysis.

The legislation also would have been substantially improved by including a clause acknowledging that stronger Ontario human rights laws and a better enforcement system are essential to addressing the ways in which inequality contributes to poverty and poverty contributes to inequality.

Activists also were disappointed that their proposal to require all Ontario’s laws, policies and practices to be consistent with the principles of poverty reduction was not adopted.

All of that said, there is no question that Ontario’s poverty reduction fight has moved forward and that the strengthened Poverty Reduction Act is sure to become an important tool in this fight.
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Greg deGroot-Magetti, a steering member of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, and Sarah Blackstock, policy analyst with the Income Security Advocacy Centre, are spokespeople for the 25in5 Network for Poverty Reduction.

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