Poverty plan slammed as an empty gesture

TheStar.com – Ontario – Poverty plan slammed as an empty gesture: Anti-poverty activists listen as the Liberal government’s proposed anti-poverty bill is introduced in the Legislature on Feb. 25, 2009.

The provincial government’s anti-poverty legislation was hailed yesterday as a historic step forward, but one that critics said lacked both direction and funds.
The Liberals’ long-anticipated bill to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent in five years was derided by critics as being full of loopholes and lacking direction when record numbers of people are using food banks.

“What use is a poverty plan that has no plan?” New Democratic Party MPP Cheri DiNovo asked in the Legislature. “Indeed, the only thing you can say about it is it’s really poor. What use is it?”

But anti-poverty activists were more upbeat about the proposed Poverty Reduction Act.

“Today we were very impressed the minister used clear and bold language to say this is the time to fight poverty. We hope that translates into dollars in the budget,” said Sarah Blackstock, spokesperson for the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, a broad provincial network of more than 350 groups and agencies dedicated to cutting poverty by 25 per cent in five years.

The proposed bill is aimed at lifting about 90,000 Ontario children out of poverty by 2014.

But in introducing the bill yesterday, the Liberal government said its anti-poverty strategy can be attained only if the economy grows and all three levels of government offer support.

“We have laid out our measures and we are going to report back annually on how well we are doing on the indicators we identified in this first strategy,” Children and Youth Minister Deb Matthews, head of the province’s anti-poverty drive, told reporters.

Beginning in late 2009, the legislation states the minister is required to publish on a government website an annual report of progress made on the poverty-reduction strategy. “Future governments will continue the work we started.”

Anti-poverty activists generally say the bill is a step in the right direction. They hope relief will come soon to the more than 1 million poor Ontarians, including one in every nine children and teens. But activists want to see the money to back up the promises the Liberals have made

“If this government really cares about poverty as much as it says it does, then they need to step up to the plate. In the March 26 budget we want programs and policies to fight poverty,” said Blackstock.

Many anti-poverty groups wanted reduction targets embedded in the legislation, but call the bill historic because it says, for the first time, that fighting poverty is the government’s business and not just a problem for individuals and charities.

The bill “hardens up” Ontario’s collective commitment to fight poverty, Premier Dalton McGuinty told reporters.

“What we are doing by way of legislation is requiring that all governments have a target of their own, adopt a strategy of their own,” he said. Governments will no longer be able to ignore the poor, he added.

In December, Ontario introduced its blueprint to fight poverty in the report entitled Breaking the Cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

While the plan did come with $300 million in new money, meeting the children poverty target hinges on a $1.5 billion boost from Ottawa in increased child and working tax benefits. Recently, the federal government did move toward making improvements to the child tax benefit.

“The purpose of the legislation, from my perspective, is to elevate our commitment as a society to addressing poverty,” McGuinty told reporters.

“When it comes to poverty, I don’t think we’ll be judged on the basis of any one particular bill. We’ll be judged on the basis of any progress we make when it comes to helping people living in poverty.”

Political critics were quick to assail the legislation, saying it was just a “framework” with no specific “targets, actions or commitments.”

Ontarians have been forced to turn to food banks in record numbers and child poverty is getting worse, said DiNovo. Ontario is not willing to build low-income housing, provide daycare or raise the minimum wage, she said.

“We know most people living in poverty are women and children in this province,” said DiNovo (Parkdale-High Park.) “There is nothing to help women and children in anything he (McGuinty) says. Presumably we’ll wait for the budget. But whatever the budget says obviously is planning on the federal government stepping in and that is no plan at all.”

Conservative MPP Tim Hudak (Niagara West Glanbrook) said the poverty reduction legislation sounds like “another fluffy” McGuinty bill.

“How can you achieve a target if you have no arrows in your quiver? This guy has taken away Ontario’s competitive advantage, there are more people on welfare today thanks to McGuinty’s policies,” Hudak said.

“The best cure for poverty is a good, well paying job. In Dalton’s McGuinty’s outdated tax and spend policies have chased some 275,000 well paid manufacturing jobs from our province.”

The anti-poverty activists who worked with Matthews to help come up with the December strategy say they are pleased the legislation commits the government to tell Ontarians how they are going to cut poverty and to report annually on progress.

The bill also requires Queen’s Park to set new goals and targets every five years through province-wide consultations.

“This is only the second time in Canada that a provincial government has brought in legislation that makes poverty reduction a permanent part of government business,” said Jacquie Maund of Ontario Campaign 2000, a coalition of groups committed to eliminating child poverty.

Quebec introduced an anti-poverty law in 2002 that commits that province to becoming the jurisdiction with the lowest poverty rate within the decade.

Activists say proof of the Liberals’ commitment to the legislation will be in the March 26 budget.

They want the budget to include a $100 healthy food supplement for adults on social assistance; a $92 monthly Ontario Child Benefit this year rising to $125 a month next year and a commitment to craft a new housing benefit for all low-income households.

They also want Queen’s Park to spend $85 million on 7,500 new affordable child-care spaces and $1 billion on affordable housing construction and repair – a figure that includes cost-sharing with the recent federal budget.

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