Poverty plan greeted with gratitude

TheStar.com – Opinion – Poverty plan greeted with gratitude
December 05, 2008. Jim Coyle

It was as idealistic as a valedictory address and as optimistic as a marriage proposal.

The Ontario government’s anti-poverty strategy released yesterday even had members of the cabinet committee that drafted it lining up to kiss chair Deb Matthews after its debut, like a receiving line bussing a bride at a wedding.

Frances Lankin, chair of the United Way of Greater Toronto and as tough a customer as they come, was reduced to tears of joy and gratitude. “Thank you to the premier, to the minister, to the cabinet committee,” she bubbled.

There’s no doubt the historic report, aimed at reducing child poverty by 25 per cent in five years and committing the province to annual reporting on progress, hit many of the right buttons.

It said that, beyond any moral implications, reducing poverty makes economic sense. That the focus should be on children and that poor kids often need just a little help to be able to compete. That the best poverty reduction strategy is a strong public education system. That any serious poverty reduction plan must “span decades, if not generations.”

There’s no doubt also that the report marked an absolute sea change from the Harris government’s contempt for the poor.

Pat Capponi, a Toronto author and spokesperson for Voices From the Street, said it was an auspicious day that marked the end of a “very grim period” in Ontario when the poor were made “public enemies and pariahs.”

“It’s like somehow we’ve been welcomed back into the family of Ontario citizens.”

It was a measure of how hard things had been in Ontario that poverty activists were so profoundly grateful for what they described as first steps, starting points and road maps.

In fact, reaction to the plan seemed to depend on points of reference. Those, like Lankin and Capponi, measuring it against the previous administration were exulting. Those, like New Democrat Michael Prue, comparing it to hopes the McGuinty government had raised for something more comprehensive were dismayed.

“I’m underwhelmed, I’m disappointed, I’m so angry I don’t know what to say,” Prue told reporters.

More than the inevitable fallout from great expectations, however, the skunk at Deb Matthews’ garden party was the caveat that kept popping up in her report.

“Ontario can’t do this alone,” it said on page 2. “Meeting this target depends on having a willing partner in the federal government and a growing economy.”

In case anyone missed that, it said on page 3 that “it is going to be particularly important for the federal government to come to the table as a willing partner.”

Just to be sure no one was labouring under any misapprehensions, page 4 carried reminders that “we cannot meet this goal without a strong federal partner and a growing economy.”

In particular, the province called on the federal government to increase support of the Working Income Tax Benefit and the National Child Benefit Supplement to the tune of $1.5 billion.

When Matthews was asked how keen the federal government was to collaborate, she could not say.

That “when and if” was not lost even on those cheering the thrust of the report. The anti-poverty lobby is savvy and sophisticated, hardened by the long battle and unlikely to suffer much political backsliding.

“We’ll keep up the pressure,” said Jacquie Maund of Campaign 2000.

Given the economy, and the state of a federal government on which so much depends, and that recurring conditional clause, they might have to.

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