Make poverty reduction a priority – Opinion – Make poverty reduction a priority
August 22, 2008. Peter Graefe

For the first time in 20 years, poverty is on Ontario’s political radar screen.

After 15 years of strong economic and employment growth, and a large drop in the welfare caseload since the early 1990s, poverty rates have scarcely moved.

Clearly, poverty is not going to go away by itself. We have 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. And we now know a lot more about how poverty is costly, both in wasted human potential and in foregone economic growth.

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s step of opening a conversation on poverty reduction is a once-in-a-generation possibility for systemic and wide-reaching change, but there is a danger that narrow political calculations will squander this opportunity to take some bold policy steps.

Governments cannot eliminate poverty at the stroke of a pen, but those that have made poverty reduction a priority and have adopted clear plans for reducing poverty through mutually reinforcing initiatives, such as Quebec, have managed significant reductions over a short period of time.

These initiatives are not just about welfare, but about creating sustaining employment so that those who work are not poor; about providing livable incomes for those unable to work; and about funding the community supports such as housing, child care and community programs that help people connect.

But we need our politicians to take the lead, and here we face two dangers.

First, as a government initiative, the opposition parties are left to snipe at specific details without putting their cards on the table about poverty reduction, and there is a danger that a change of government or the passage of time will see poverty reduction ignored or scrapped. If this remains a “McGuinty” initiative, it can easily be cut by a subsequent Conservative government or ignored by future Liberal leaders.

Second, the current economic downturn encourages the McGuinty government to play down expectations and limits its ambitions to small-scale changes that take energies away from the systemic changes necessary.

In this context, Ontarians should demand two things of their politicians. First, following the Quebec example, the Legislature should pass an all-party “framework” bill in favour of eliminating poverty. The bill should require governments to release an action plan setting out multi-year targets and measures for reducing poverty, as well as an annual report tracking progress and discussing successes and failures.

A framework bill would commit any party forming the government to set out how it was going to tackle poverty, recognizing that the Conservatives or New Democrats might do it differently than the Liberals.

Yet the action plans and annual reports would ensure that poverty reduction never became an afterthought. All parties would have an ownership stake. And parties that treated poverty as an afterthought or refused to adopt effective policies would have to answer annually for their poor results.

These requirements proved crucial in Quebec in 2003 in forcing the incoming Liberal government, which was not initially interested in poverty, to keep poverty reduction on the radar. It chose a different set of policies than the preceding Parti Québécois government, fair game in a democracy, and citizens can hold it accountable for the results of that choice.

The second thing Ontarians should demand is that the McGuinty government develop an annual action plan with targets and proposed measures, as under a framework bill. If the economic situation is such that they wish to lowball investment and set minimal poverty reduction targets, let them say so clearly in their plan.

Ontarians are reasonable and might accept the government’s wisdom. But more importantly, require them to come back with plans year after year to make that case so that a couple of tough economic years does not spell the end of poverty reduction for a generation.

Peter Graefe teaches social policy at McMaster University.

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