Low-income voters look to province

TheStar.com – Federal Election – Low-income voters look to province
September 15, 2008. Carol Goar

Low-income voters don’t pay much attention to national elections. The political leaders seldom talk to them. They rarely even talk about them.

Superficially, this campaign is different. Three of the four main parties have identified poverty reduction as one of their key priorities.

But here in Ontario, there is little excitement among anti-poverty groups.

The principal reason is that most of their attention is focused on Queen’s Park right now. With the provincial government finalizing the details of its poverty reduction plan, they don’t want to be distracted by elusive campaign promises.

The secondary reason is that social activists have taken a cursory look at the platforms of the three parties pledging to tackle poverty – the Liberals, the New Democrats and the Greens – and found less than meets the eye.

Stéphane Dion is making the boldest claim. He says that a Liberal government would reduce the number of Canadians living below the poverty line by 30 per cent within five years. It would cut the number of children living in poverty by 50 per cent.

Dion’s agenda, the Green Shift, shows (in part) how he would achieve this goal. He would impose a $10 per tonne tax on carbon, rising to $40 per tonne over four years. His government would use the proceeds – $15.3 billion a year when the plan is fully implemented – to lower the income tax rate for low and middle-income earners, increase the universal child tax benefit, enrich the working income tax benefit, provide credits to rural and northern Canadians and set up a $1 billion fund to help manufacturers develop green technologies.

Rob Reiner, executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization, acknowledges that Dion’s tax shift would put more money into the hands of low-income Canadians. But it wouldn’t come close to lifting 1.1 million people – including 394,000 children – out of poverty.

The problem, he says, is that the Liberals are directing a large portion of their tax relief to the middle class (individuals earning up to $123,000) and to corporations.

“The Liberals must come forth with other significant anti-poverty measures if their 30/50 goals are to be realized.”

In fairness, Dion does plan announcements on child care and affordable housing.

Jack Layton says the NDP is committed to “laying the groundwork for a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.”

His campaign platform includes a $10 per hour federal minimum wage; a national housing program; a national early learning and child-care program; a revamping of the Employment Insurance system, which excludes millions of precarious workers; a reduction in student debt; a crackdown on banks, credit card providers and cellphone companies that charge excessive fees; and an $8 billion investment in Canada’s struggling manufacturing sector.

Welcome as these initiatives would be, anti-poverty activists want to know how they fit together and what the overall goal is.

Moreover, they see no prospect of Layton becoming Canada’s next prime minister and doubt he will have much influence if the Conservatives are re-elected. He didn’t in the last Parliament.

Elizabeth May calls the persistence of poverty in Canada “a scandal.” If the Green party were in charge, it would not let anyone fall through the cracks, she says.

She aims to wipe out the existing “shame-based” system of public assistance and put in place a guaranteed livable income that would provide all Canadians with enough money to live on. Recognizing that it would take time and provincial co-operation to implement her plan, she promises to raise pension payments to low-income seniors, improve disability support, forgive student loans “and so on.”

For people who are struggling right now, the “so on” is more important than the Elysian vision.

Anti-poverty activists are relieved that hunger, homelessness and need are finally on the federal radar screen.

But they’re pragmatists. Their best hope of progress right now lies at the provincial level. If the Conservatives are re-elected, it could be their only hope.

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