Gap between passion and revenue – comment – Gap between passion and revenue
May 23, 2008. Carol Goar

Expectations are running high. Revenues are running low. And Premier Dalton McGuinty has decreed that there will be no deficit and no tax increases.

Yet Deb Matthews, who heads the cabinet committee drafting Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, is defiantly sanguine.

“There’s no question that the fiscal reality is going to be a lot tighter,” the minister of children and youth services says. “But I’m not discouraged by that one little bit.”

Matthews is either putting on a brave show or she’s convinced herself that she can make great strides with little cash.

A recent conversation with the minister – in a coffee shop with no aides or tape recorders – suggested that her optimism is real.

Not once did she express doubt about her ability to deliver an ambitious plan. Not once did she display concern that anti-poverty activists, who have set their sights on a 25 per cent reduction in the poverty rate within five years, might be disappointed. Not once did she acknowledge that her strategy would be less sweeping than the premier’s rhetoric. (“This is a huge issue for us,” McGuinty told voters last fall. “The Liberals are the only party to have committed to a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy.”)

Matthews did not want to talk about targets or money. She focused instead on the success stories she’s been hearing on her 13-city consulting tour and the importance of coming up with the right tools to measure poverty and progress.

But over the course of 45 minutes, several broader themes did emerge:

She will present Ontarians with a long-term poverty reduction strategy, not a quick action plan. “Some things might have to wait, no doubt. But once I articulate the vision and first steps, we can fight over how fast we’re going to go.”

She will resist any attempt to link the strength of her government’s commitment to the size of its financial outlay. “Even if there was unlimited cash, we’d still need a road map to reduce poverty.”

She will outline a process to convert the current hodgepodge of programs – many of which reflect bureaucrats’ preconceptions, not clients’ needs – into a poverty reduction plan that wraps services around people. Matthews is tired of hearing from single mothers who have taken four or five resumé writing courses.

She will replace the commonly accepted yardstick of poverty – income level – with an array of indicators. They will include high school graduation rates, preschool readiness to learn (McMaster University has devised an early development index) and number of social assistance recipients moving into the workforce.

Matthews went to great pains to dispel the impression that the province-wide consultations she is conducting this month and next are closed to the public.

She has asked local organizers in each community to ensure that one-third of the participants at each session actually live in poverty. She invited protesters at several venues to join the discussion. She has spent the evening, in most cities, at a drop-in centre or women’s hostel or homeless shelter.

“The social agencies probably are overrepresented,” Matthews allows. “But the best contributions are coming from the low-income participants.”

Left unsaid is that she simply doesn’t have time for open-ended debate. With a year-end deadline, Matthews has to move from the listening phase to the prescription phase within weeks.

She senses that Ontarians are open to proposals they might not have accepted a few years ago. “I think we’ve graduated. There’s an understanding that poverty is very expensive when you really add up the costs. There’s a genuine awareness that some people on the margins don’t need to be.”

Matthews does walk the talk.

Unlike most politicians, she has spoken to hundreds of low-income Ontarians. She has fought for better housing and social services since she was elected in 2003.

But there has always been a gap between her passion and her government’s programs.

Given the slowing economy and McGuinty’s balanced budget dictum, it is hard to see how Matthews will close it.

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