Poverty reduction does make a difference
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
Published On Sun Jun 26 2011. Greg deGroot-Maggetti
The evidence is in. A lot of people in Canada took a real hit during the recent recession.
Figures from Statistics Canada show that poverty became a reality for more Canadians between 2007 and 2009.
No surprise there, really. It’s hard to imagine poverty falling in the worst global recession in recent history.
But look a little closer and something more interesting appears.
In Ontario, child poverty actually fell between 2008 and 2009, inching down from 15.2 per cent to 14.6 per cent.
That means 19,000 Ontario children and their families were moved out of poverty, despite very tough times.
Granted, the change is small, but it’s a stark contrast to other provinces that were also hit hard by the recession. In Alberta, for example, child poverty soared by 25 per cent in the same period.
What’s the difference?
Ontario took concrete action to reduce child poverty. Provinces like Alberta didn’t.
In 2007, the McGuinty government pledged to bring in a poverty reduction strategy. It released its strategy in December of 2008. The plan was to cut child poverty by 25 per cent in five years.
Opposition parties and anti-poverty groups were critical that the strategy did not go far enough, that it should have aimed to reduce poverty for everyone, not just children. That’s a fair critique.
But all parties in the Legislature shared the vision of taking action to reduce poverty when they voted unanimously for the Poverty Reduction Act in May 2009.
So what difference has poverty reduction made?
A great deal, it turns out.
When Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy was announced, the global recession was in full swing. Anti-poverty groups urged the provincial government to take bold steps to protect people from the economic downswing.
They urged government to increase the Ontario Child Benefit, boost the minimum wage, and match federal stimulus spending. They also called on the province to raise incomes for adults living in poverty.
The McGuinty government followed through on the first three steps. It also introduced full-day junior and senior kindergarten. But, crucially, it did not do anything substantial to deal with income security for adults.
Child poverty dropped. It is a little off the pace for reaching the government’s target of a 25 per cent reduction in five years. But it is a move in the right direction.
By contrast, poverty rates for working age adults in Ontario continued to climb.
But even there, the story is more nuanced.
Unemployment hit men harder than women during the recession. As a result, poverty among single men climbed steadily. Poverty rates for single women actually fell.
This suggests that those who were able to keep or find work benefitted from the protection of a higher minimum wage — since more women than men work for minimum wage. Those who lost jobs — particularly men — suffered from Ontario’s punishing social assistance system.
The lesson to be learned is that a government commitment matched by good policy can make a big difference in people’s lives.
It’s worth remembering that it is not just the Liberals who made a commitment to reduce poverty in Ontario. The Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats voted unanimously for the Poverty Reduction Act.
And that law requires whichever party that wins the fall election to update Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy. It means any new government must set new poverty reduction targets, and match them with timelines and an action plan to make it happen.
Now is the time for all parties in Ontario to talk about their poverty reduction policies and plans.
We need to know what action they plan to take to make sure all Ontarians, adults as well as children, will experience less poverty.
Greg deGroot-Maggetti is poverty advocate for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. He lives in Kitchener.
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