Drawing up a poverty plan

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Drawing up a poverty plan
February 04, 2008

As a new Ontario cabinet committee meets this week to begin the serious work of devising a poverty reduction strategy, it would do well to remember that a complex problem requires complex solutions.

The “25 and 5 network,” a coalition of more than 100 anti-poverty groups who want the government to commit to cutting poverty by 25 per cent in five years, last week cautioned the government against trying to solve the problem with piecemeal measures. History shows that approach hasn’t worked. Indeed, Ontario’s disjointed and inadequate system of supports for the poor has left 1 million Ontarians struggling below the Statistics Canada low-income line, a rate that has not changed in a generation.

“It is not about announcing more programs,” Marvyn Novick, a retired social policy professor at Ryerson University, told the coalition meeting last week. “There have to be better sets of living conditions for people.”

Any plan that succeeds in cutting poverty should include a comprehensive strategy with real numbers and targets and the money to make it happen.

It requires measures targeted at specific groups who are disproportionately represented in poverty numbers: lone parents, recent immigrants, women, aboriginals, racial minorities and the disabled.

A poverty strategy should also ensure that hard-working people earn a livable income. In order to help Ontarians through the coming economic storms, the cabinet committee should revisit the issue of raising the minimum wage. Premier Dalton McGuinty has pledged to raise it to $10.25 an hour by 2010 but today’s rate of $8 an hour still leaves people working full-time some $1,000 below the poverty line.

It should also include measures to enhance and enforce employment standards so that workers are not exploited by temporary agencies that flout provincial laws. Less than 1 per cent of workplaces are now inspected each year for breaches of those laws.

The province should also put pressure on the federal government to reform Employment Insurance rules that now leave only 22 per cent of Toronto workers eligible to collect benefits when they lose their jobs.

It should also ensure a livable income for those who can find only part-time work or who can’t work. That includes improving social assistance and disability benefits that were radically cut by the Harris government in the late 1990s.

And the cabinet committee – headed by Deb Matthews, minister of children and youth services – has to address the need for better early childhood education and daycare.

But first, the plan needs a clear definition of poverty. Countries like Ireland and Australia that have succeeded in cutting their poverty rates have two measures: The first defines those on the precarious edge and the second addresses those in abject deprivation who earn less than 60 per cent of the median income and fail to meet at least two of 11 indicators of precariousness. They include such things as owning two pairs of strong shoes and being able to afford a roast once a week.

Without a definition that can show the public that the measures taken are making a difference in the lives of the poorest among us, no poverty plan can hope to succeed in good times or bad.

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