Poverty steps are just a start

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Poverty steps are just a start
March 20, 2008

Premier Dalton McGuinty has made a good down payment on a promised poverty reduction strategy for Ontario with his announcement that close to $300 million in next week’s provincial budget will be allocated for programs to help low-income children and families.

The measures include $135 million to provide dental care to “working poor” families and the extension of an emergency dental program for low-income children to take them up to the age of 18. The move will help to eliminate the “welfare wall” that traps many people on social assistance because they lose their benefits when they take a job.

McGuinty’s government will also provide $100 million this year to repair 4,000 provincial affordable housing units, including about 600 units in Toronto. While that is a start, Toronto alone needs $300 million to repair its crumbling stock of public housing units, which are plagued with leaking roofs, mould, cockroaches, broken heating and circulation systems, rusted plumbing and frayed electrical wiring.

In addition to the direct funding, McGuinty announced that municipalities will be able to get up to $500 million in low-cost loans to repair up to 20,000 affordable housing units.

The Liberal government will also spend $32 million over three years to expand the student nutrition program so that every student in Ontario will have access to good, healthy meals and snacks, a move that could help deal with the growing problem of childhood obesity.

The focus on measures to fight poverty is welcome news to social policy advocates, who have been struggling for years to call attention to the plight of more than 1 million Ontarians living in poverty. And while the advocates are generally supportive of McGuinty’s initiative, they also hope it is just the first step toward a comprehensive strategy on poverty.

McGuinty has pledged to develop such a strategy this year and has appointed a cabinet committee, headed by cabinet minister Deb Matthews, to devise it. The strategy is to be built around the new Ontario child benefit and will include targets and indicators.

While that is in the works, McGuinty is taking what he himself is calling “early steps” to tackle the poverty file, rather than wait for a comprehensive plan to be finalized.

Anti-poverty advocates, including the Star, will hold him to his word. The countdown has now begun for the completion of a poverty reduction plan and significant funding in 2009.

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