Hot! Poverty plan slipping to the sidelines – Opinion – Poverty plan slipping to the sidelines
September 26, 2008. Jim Coyle

When the watering hole shrinks, as former Ontario cabinet minister Zanana Akande once observed at a time when the province’s was drying up fast, the animals eye each other a little differently.

That suspicious sniffing at winds, that cocked ear to the slightest change in posture has begun in earnest over the Ontario government’s celebrated promise to implement an aggressive poverty-reduction plan.

The poor and their advocates sense threat in the air. If nothing else, poverty renders the antennae acute. Wariness goes with the territory when the margins for survival are small.

Recent remarks from Premier Dalton McGuinty that economic challenges might delay implementation of his government’s poverty-reduction plan, due by year end, have triggered alarms.

Having raised expectations of historic change, the premier is now – days of easy prosperity gone – busy lowering them.

Trying economic times mean adjustments will be required, he said. The question is not whether a plan with targets and timelines will be produced, but “how quickly we can move on this particular strategy given our financial challenges.”

In short, the plan will be delivered as promised. The funding might not be.

This week, Josephine Grey, of the Ontario Coalition for Social Justice, called it “extremely disappointing to hear the premier say that now is not a good time to address poverty in Ontario. I would say, `we don’t have any time left.'”

Yesterday, the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, urging that poverty be made front and centre on the current federal campaign, was the latest to draw the connection between poverty and health.

The association called for a national anti-poverty strategy, including increasing and indexing to inflation the federal minimum wage, increasing child-tax benefits, investing in child care and a national housing program.

“It’s a national disgrace that one in 12 children live in poverty in this country,” said president Wendy Fucile. “Other jurisdictions have shown that political leadership and good social policy can reduce poverty.”

Those on guard for any weakening of commitment by McGuinty say the turning point is not the mere production of a strategy but the financial oomph behind it.

“If you don’t actually put money in people’s pockets, they can’t spend it,” Grey said. “Talking about putting a plan in place without implementing it is basically talking about a lot of hot air.”

Yesterday, Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews, chair of the premier’s cabinet committee on poverty, provided little comfort to those growing edgier by the day.

“We will be delivering a comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy for the province of Ontario,” she said. “It will lay out a road map that if implemented, over time, will reduce poverty in this province.”

The “if implemented” and “over time” could hardly be lost on those pushing for the prompt and significant funding that would give on-the-ground traction to lofty good intentions.

Lately, for anti-poverty activists, there has been no shortage of such ominous signs.

This week, while criticizing Stephen Harper’s cuts to arts funding, McGuinty said a society “reveals itself through its architecture, through its literature, through its music and through its art.”

True enough. But he used to say that the most important aspect of any society was revealed by how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable of its members.

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