Ideas abound in poverty fight – Opinion/editorial – Ideas abound in poverty fight
August 06, 2008

More than 600 groups and individuals have made online submissions to Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews and her cabinet committee on how to tackle poverty in this province.

That’s in addition to 1,000 participants who took part in 14 regional round tables, 10 social service agency drop-ins with people living in poverty, and 150 letters to the committee.

The response has been so great that Matthews and her committee have decided to drop the deadline for making online submissions at, which was originally the end of July.

“We’re always listening,” Matthews said in an interview yesterday. “This is the beginning of a process that won’t be over by the end of the year,” when the committee’s report is due.

That response rate reflects the growing concern in Ontario about high levels of child and adult poverty. Despite 15 years of strong economic and employment growth, the poverty rate has scarcely moved.

What has changed is the welfare caseload, which has declined significantly thanks to deep cuts in benefits in the 1990s. That has left “more working people who are `paid to be poor,’ whose wages and work benefits don’t allow them to look after their eyes and teeth,” says Peter Graefe, a professor of social policy at McMaster University. He calls the current poverty conversation “a once in a generation possibility for systemic and wide-ranging change.”

In his submission, Graefe urges the government to adopt the model used in Quebec by passing an all-party “framework” anti-poverty bill with annual targets and measures. Then poverty can’t simply be ignored if there is a change in government.

Matthews said she is looking intently at that model. “What I have no interest in is putting all this time and effort into a document that doesn’t go anywhere,” she says. “It’s one of the debates we’re having.”

There were more ideas in a submission from the Income Security Advocacy Centre, which was set up by Legal Aid Ontario in 2001 to conduct test cases related to income security programs. It urges the government to change its approach to social assistance by moving toward programs that lift people out of poverty through skills training and education.

According to the advocacy centre, one of every three persons on welfare in Toronto is a new immigrant who can’t get a job despite having education and training. Women fleeing abusive relationships and their children also make up a sizeable part of the caseload.

One of the central themes in the submissions is how difficult the system is to navigate, Matthews said. Under the current rules, for example, welfare applicants must use up virtually all their assets in order to qualify. That leaves them with no cushion to escape poverty.

“Some of our own rules keep people trapped in poverty,” she said. “The complexity of the system is an issue we heard everywhere.

“We really need to focus on the supports people need to reach their potential instead of putting up barriers,” continued Matthews. “They deserve to be treated with dignity.”

Matthews and her team have much to ponder in the coming months as they draft their poverty reduction strategy.

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