Historic day for poverty activists

TheStar.com – Opinion – Historic day for poverty activists
December 03, 2008. Carol Goar

Tomorrow is the day poverty activists have worked for, fought for and longed for.

But it comes with a daunting challenge.

Nothing in the poverty reduction plan the Ontario government is set to unveil will help the tens of thousands of Ontarians who are skimping on food, facing eviction and staring at layoff notices right now.

None of the targets, timetables or policy changes that Children’s Minister Deb Matthews is poised to announce will help low-income Ontarians buy groceries, pay the rent or survive the recession that is already wiping out precarious jobs and hammering the charities on which they depend.

The government’s task is to convince Ontarians that it has turned the corner on poverty.

The anti-poverty movement’s no less critical task is to convince its members their lives are going to get better.

The leaders of the 25 in 5 Network, the province-wide coalition of groups fighting for a meaningful poverty reduction plan, have given this moment a great deal of thought. They are nervous, but ready.

Pat Capponi, who has lived on the street and has many friends who still do, knows what her message will be. “It (the province’s blueprint) won’t put food in anybody’s mouth, but it puts an end to poor-bashing in Ontario – and that’s big,” she says.

The people in her circles know how it feels to walk into a welfare office and be treated like a cheat and a parasite. They know how it feels to be trapped in a system that strips them of their dignity in exchange for $572 a month.

“It’s a corrosive feeling of shame.” she says “You’re already abused and somebody’s kicking you in the head again.”

If the government displays a real willingness to overhaul the province’s punitive social assistance system, Capponi believes many low-income Ontarians will buy in – at least until next spring’s budget.

For child poverty activist Jacquie Maund of Campaign 2000, it’s essential to get a firm numerical target and delivery date. The coalition is seeking a 25 per cent reduction in poverty within five years.

“That would be brand new. We’d be the only province in the country with a timeline,” she says. (Quebec and Newfoundland have poverty reduction strategies without explicit benchmarks.)

Maund acknowledges that an ambitious goal won’t bring immediate relief for parents struggling to feed their kids or families living on a paycheque that doesn’t cover basic necessities.

But she’s convinced it would send a strong signal to low-income Ontarians that the days of empty promises and half-hearted efforts are over.

For Peter Clutterbuck of the Social Planning Council of Ontario, the most important message the coalition can send to people living in poverty is that the fight has just begun.

Nobody is satisfied with a statement of intent. Nobody is walking away from the battlefield.

“We have a foundation to build on,” he says. “Now we’re looking at the next three budgets. And we want a different culture than the Plexiglas window in the welfare office. The goal should be to give people a chance.”

If Matthews’ announcement fails to meet the coalition’s minimum requirements – a clear poverty reduction target, a credible measuring stick, a legislated timetable and specific commitments to raise the minimum wage, crack down on exploitative employers, increase social assistance rates and invest in housing and child care – its leaders will make no attempt to defend or sugar-coat the plan. They will leave the government at the mercy of their 350 member organizations, letting each voice its own sense of betrayal.

If Matthews provides a framework for genuine progress, anti-poverty activists will swing into phase two, lobbying for a substantial outlay in the coming provincial budget to convert words into action.

Tomorrow they’ll know. They’ll celebrate briefly, if the news is good.

Then they’ll get back to work, changing rules, changing lives and turning a paper victory into a real one.

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