Ottawa should not delay on action to fight poverty
TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials – It’s hard not to be cynical about the announcement this week that Ottawa intends to conduct a public consultation on its anti-poverty strategy, delaying action until at least the fall.
Feb. 17, 2017. By STAR EDITORIAL BOARD
It’s hard not to be cynical about the announcement this week that Ottawa intends to conduct a public consultation on its anti-poverty strategy, delaying action until at least the fall. With the federal budget likely just weeks away, the news doesn’t bode well for the prospect of immediate relief for those most in need.
That would be a shame. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s commitment to developing an anti-poverty strategy is welcome after a decade of federal retrenchment, and a public consultation could no doubt improve his government’s approach. But there are several measures the government can take that could quickly and profoundly improve the lives of the one in seven Canadians living in poverty. On these, there’s no reason to wait.
Fix Employment Insurance. The Liberals came to power promising to fix Canada’s broken EI system, which hasn’t received a significant overhaul since 1996. After a decade of erosion, only about 40 per cent of unemployed Canadians now have access to employment insurance, a lower proportion than at any time since the Second World War. Among other issues, the program was designed for an era when steady jobs were the norm. The growing ranks of precarious workers often don’t spend long enough in short-term jobs to qualify for benefits or training.
EI exists to ensure people in temporary trouble don’t fall permanently out of the labour market and become forever dependent on welfare. It’s in everyone’s best interest that the program work well. But while Trudeau introduced modest tweaks to the system in his first budget, much more must be done to ensure EI reflects the shifting reality of work and is adequate to the current cost of living.
The issue has been on the Liberals’ agenda for years, and experts have long advocated specific policy fixes, such as new fair and universal criteria for access and a ban on governments’ raiding EI reserves. Ottawa shouldn’t have to spend months consulting before it eases the burden on the unemployed.
Invest in affordable housing. The same is true of paying for affordable housing and the supports necessary to end homelessness. After decades of federal retreat in this area, the Trudeau government vowed to do better. It undertook a four-month public consultation on a national housing strategy and published its findings last fall, including that Canadians want government to significantly boost affordable housing stock and end homelessness, set clear targets for doing so and publicly measure progress.
In Ontario alone, the social housing waitlist is longer and slower-moving than ever before. Some 170,000 households are currently waiting for units, with the average wait time at around four years. Urgent action is needed, as the government acknowledges. Surely those who need adequate shelter shouldn’t have to wait for the results of yet another months-long consultation.
Do more for parents. The Trudeau government’s hallmark social policy, the expanded Canada Child Benefit, will lift thousands of children out of poverty. But it could be better. The program won’t be indexed to inflation until 2020, thus providing less than seemed to have been promised. That should be remedied.
Moreover, the day-care situation remains dire. Licenced spots exist for just 22 per cent of children under 5. In Toronto alone, almost 12,000 eligible children are in the queue for subsidized spaces. This situation robs too many people, particularly mothers, of the opportunity to work or train. Study after study has shown that a universal, quality, affordable child-care system would do much to alleviate poverty, as well as promote economic growth. The evidence is in; it’s time to act.
Improve protections for people with disabilities. The federal government offers people living with a severe mental or physical disability a tax credit worth up to nearly $2,000 a year. However, many people with disabilities are on welfare or welfare-like programs or work at very low-income jobs and thus don’t pay much income tax, if any. The result is that those most in need receive no benefit.
There’s a fix for this. Disability advocates have long argued for what’s called a refundable version of the credit; that is, one that provides either a break on your taxes, or if your taxes are so low that you don’t qualify, a cash grant at the end of the year. This would be a far more effective tool for helping those with disabilities who need it the most. The Caledon Institute, the think-tank that designed the model for the Canada Child Benefit, published a paper in 2015 that sets out a detailed road map on how to design and implement such reform. Ottawa should follow it.
The Trudeau government’s embrace of democratic consultation is a welcome shift after a decade of something like government-by-fiat. But these consultations must not be used as smokescreens to distract from inaction.
At what point does consultation erode rather than build trust? Take just a few of the Liberal campaign promises still undelivered ostensibly because they are in some stage of consultation or review: rolling back the most egregious aspects of the Tories’ overreaching security policy; closing regressive tax loopholes that benefit the richest few at a great cost to the public purse; fixing the outdated access-to-information law to ensure transparency and accountability. How much consultation is needed before the government is ready to do as it promised?
This tendency to consult rather than act – to signal a commitment without delivering the substance and paying the cost – is particularly worrying in the case of the government’s promised anti-poverty strategy.
If Ottawa wants to consult as it develops a holistic approach to poverty, great. But precarious workers without employment insurance, the hundreds of thousands of households waiting for social housing, the parents, primarily mothers, who can afford neither to work nor not to, those who have faced particular hardship by virtue of their disabilities – we know how to help these people. They shouldn’t be asked to keep waiting.