Poverty measures belong in budget

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Poverty measures belong in budget
March 05, 2009

In a luncheon speech on Tuesday, provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan gave Ontarians an advance look at his March 26 budget by revealing the projected deficit – $18 billion over two years.

Lest anyone compare him to Bob Rae, Duncan quickly added that proportionately the deficit would “certainly (be) lower than Ontario experienced in the early 1990s.”

The size of the deficit was not unexpected given the economic times. Nonetheless, the opposition Conservatives, living on some cloud cuckoo-land where there is no recession, called the projected deficit “a shocking display of fiscal incompetence.”

The Conservatives aside, Duncan’s speech was more remarkable for what it did not say than for what it said about the deficit.

Duncan touched on all the right bases, with one notable exception. He said his budget would include not only short-term stimulus to create jobs but also spending to make Ontario’s economy more competitive in the long-term. Among the latter, he mentioned investments in infrastructure, innovation, the green economy, skills training, research and development and “greater tax competitiveness.”

The missing element: any mention of the word “poverty.” The government is committed to reducing child poverty by 25 per cent over the next five years, and the budget has been widely expected to make a down payment on this commitment. But somehow it didn’t warrant inclusion in Duncan’s speech to the Canadian and Empire clubs.

On the same day, Premier Dalton McGuinty was asked in the Legislature about the government’s plans on the poverty front. Replied McGuinty: “Eliminating poverty is not something that the provincial government can do on its own. We need partners at the municipal level, in the voluntary sector. But I think most importantly, we need a partner at the federal government level. We also need the support of a growing economy.”

In other words, poverty reduction is conditional upon other factors, notably support from Ottawa and a rebound in the economy. Neither is likely, at least not in the near future.

However, McGuinty and Duncan ought not to use this as an excuse for doing nothing to address poverty in the March 26 budget. First of all, the hard economic times have made the need for assistance much more acute. Second, money delivered to low-income Ontarians would be an excellent form of stimulus, as it would be spent immediately on local goods and services.

We hope, therefore, that the oversight in Duncan’s speech and the condition-setting by the premier do not mean the budget will be silent on the poverty issue.

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