Defunct social agency comes back to life
TheStar.com – opinion/commentary – Thanks to two resourceful social activists, the National Welfare Council, killed by the Conservatives last year, has come back to life.
May 29 2013. By: Carol Goar
The government thought the National Welfare Council would stay dead when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty killed it a year ago.
The 43-year-old agency, weakened by successive government cutbacks, was on its last legs. Only a few churches, social agencies and food banks still cared about it. Flaherty didn’t even bother to announce its demise.
When New Democrat Carol Hughes raised the matter in the House of Commons, Kellie Leitch, parliamentary secretary to the minister of human resources, responded dismissively that there were better uses for taxpayers’ money.
Then the tale took an unexpected twist. A couple of Canadians took it upon themselves to revive the council. Now it’s back — not as a languishing bureaucracy, but as a modern online repository of socioeconomic information.
The two rescuers were Ken Battle and Sherri Torjman , president and vice-president of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. Both worked at the National Welfare Council in its heyday. Both knew how to get their hands on poverty and welfare statistics the government wanted to push out of sight. And both were used to operating on a shoestring.
They plan to release their first offering, an up-to-date version of the welfare’s council’s compendium of welfare rates across the country, next month. In December, they will replace its national poverty profile. As a bonus, they will add a new database, a coast-to-coast look at minimum wage rates.
The budget for the entire enterprise is $150,000 — less than 14 per cent of what it cost the government to run the National Welfare Council.
The biggest saving is labour. Battle and Torjman intend to do the most of the work themselves. They will pay no rent, no printing or distribution costs and very little overhead (the only major outlay will be Statistics Canada’s user-pay data.)
They’re calling their national data hub the Canada Social Report . Initially it will include 72 federal and provincial social indicators, from pension coverage to child tax benefits, employment insurance payments to inequality trends. Next year, it will be expanded, bringing in information from 13 urban centres, including Toronto.
“One of the advantages of housing the Canada Social Report in a non-government institution is that it will not be beholden to the government for its existence,” they point out. A second potential advantage is that their initiative will act as a model and incentive for other non-profit groups capable of reviving agencies the Tories have axed: the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy , the Health Council of Canada , the National Council of Visible Minorities , the Canadian Council on Learning , and theCentre for Human Rights and Democratic Development , to name a few.
The elimination of the National Welfare Council wasn’t the only reason Battle and Torjman took action. They were shaken by thecancellation of the long-form census , described in their report as “the heart of knowledge gathering in Canada.” They were troubled by the termination of 34 of Statistics Canada’s programs, particularly its survey of labour and income dynamics , which tracked Canadians’ economic status over time. Most of all, they wanted to strike back against a general disregard for facts, evidence and knowledge in Ottawa.
“Without comprehensive information, Canadians are susceptible to the myths, misconceptions and half-truths that persist in social policy. Unfortunately, information is under attack in Ottawa,” they wrote. “The federal government clearly is not going to change direction, so Caledon will fill the breach.”
There will be challenges. Battle and Torjman have to raise the $150,000 to finance the website. Most of their potential funders are struggling themselves. They have to find a way to control their costs as Statistics Canada, hamstrung by government cutbacks, imposes user fees on more and more surveys that used to be free.
But they’ve launched the Canada Social Report with their eyes open and a 20-year history of outfoxing regressive politicians.
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