Poverty on the political to-do list

TheStar.com – Opinion – Poverty on the political to-do list
August 27, 2008. Carol Goar


Every summer, the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University hosts a symposium on a timely, but difficult, social issue.

The two-day conference gives policy-makers and researchers a chance to trade information, hear from international experts, test their ideas, ask questions and engage in thoughtful debate.

Attendance typically hovers in the 100 range.

This year’s theme was The New Poverty Agenda Reshaping Policies in the 21st Century.

Organizers knew they’d picked the right topic when registration forms started pouring in an unprecedented rate. By the time the conference opened last week, 215 participants had signed up.

Every province and territory, except Nunavut, was represented. The federal government sent 52 senior bureaucrats. Ontario’s 56-member delegation included officials from 12 ministries, plus a large contingent from the cabinet office (the nerve centre of the provincial government).

Leaders of voluntary agencies, anti-poverty groups, food banks and legal aid clinics arrived in force.

The School of Policy Studies was left scrambling to find a venue large enough for its suddenly popular symposium.

But the real measure of the event’s success was the quality of the deliberations. The speakers were well prepared. The participants came to learn, not to pontificate. No one felt any pressure to say what his or her boss wanted to hear. There was remarkably little socializing or smoking outside during the presentations.

Although no politicians were there, the lessons, tips and warnings public officials took back to their respective capitals will affect political decision-making.

Here are a few of the major thrusts:

• Policy-makers no longer have the luxury of deciding whether to treat the symptoms of poverty or attack the root causes.

For the 2.6 million adults living in poverty, it is too late for anything but triage. They need income support, affordable housing, child care and help getting a solid footing on the employment ladder. For the 760,000 children growing up in poverty, early intervention – preschool learning, a healthy diet and a safe environment – is essential.

• Endless arguments about how to measure poverty are counterproductive.

No matter what yardstick is used, the proportion of Canadians living in poverty has barely changed in the past 25 years. Garnett Picot of Statistics Canada demonstrated this lack of progress using three different indicators. The first was the market basket measure, which shows how many Canadians can’t afford the necessities of life. The second was the low-income measure, which shows how many Canadians live on less than 50 per cent of the median national income. The third was StatsCan’s familiar low-income cut-off, which shows how many Canadians are substantially worse off than average, taking into account family size and local factors. All three measures produced the same result.

• Job training, once touted as a panacea, is often a waste of taxpayers’ money.

Most government-sponsored programs don’t last long enough or provide the right skills to lift a person out of poverty. Karen Myers, a policy analyst for Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, spent four years tracking adults who returned to school. She found that few stayed long enough to benefit. Fewer still emerged with credentials that employers wanted. “If we are serious, we need to engage in a major overhaul of our learning system.”

• Ideas that excite researchers and policy-makers sometimes leave low-income people scratching their heads.

After sitting through a 90-minute presentation on asset building, Mike Creek of the National Anti-Poverty Organization observed tartly that he didn’t know a single person on social assistance who could use a tax-free savings account. Most can’t make their welfare cheque stretch to the end of the month.

Intense as many of the discussions were, what defined the conference was a palpable sense of optimism. The delegates believed, to varying degrees, that poverty was finally on the political radar screen. The speakers felt that senior government officials were actively listening.

For two days, the quiet campus felt like the most relevant policy think-tank in Canada.

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