Poverty strategy belongs in budget

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Poverty strategy belongs in budget
March 17, 2009

When Premier Dalton McGuinty committed to reduce poverty, just four months ago, his plan spoke passionately about alleviating the suffering of families living in poverty and, in doing so, improving the economic future for all Ontarians.

The need is even greater now. Yet, just days before the provincial budget that could elevate the plan from nice words to concrete action, there are troubling signs that the government is backing off.

In a speech about the economic stimulus in next week’s budget, Finance Minister Dwight Duncan didn’t say a word about the fastest stimulus of all – helping the poor. And Deb Matthews, the cabinet minister responsible for the strategy to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent within five years, says the economic downturn could interrupt its implementation. “Things have changed,” she says.

Yes, things have changed. More people are in even greater need than before. So we hope Duncan’s apparent oversight and Matthews’ comments are simply part of the government’s spin as it tries to downplay expectations in advance of the budget.

As members of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction put it in a commentary on the opposite page: “Abandoning the poor during an economic downturn is not the kind of leadership Ontarians envision for their government.”

The government’s poverty reduction strategy, released last December, had it right. Beyond the moral imperative for reducing poverty, the plan states that “it’s the smart thing to do for our economy.”

Politicians and economists are locked in heated debate about what kind of stimulus will best combat the global recession. Infrastructure funding? Tax breaks? If you gave people a financial incentive to buy a new car, would they take the leap and buy one? Would the money gained from a tax break simply sit in a bank savings account?

One thing is certain: The very poor spend what extra they get – immediately and locally. The mountain of unpaid bills on the kitchen counter doesn’t give them any other choice.

There’s no denying the province is facing more challenges than when the Liberals first promised to help the poor. The deficit is projected to be $18 billion over two years, and Ontario is bleeding jobs. And thanks to the decision of the Conservative government in Ottawa not to make it easier for unemployed Ontarians – and the thousands more joining their ranks weekly – to qualify for benefits, the province’s situation may get far worse.

Helping the poor in positive ways – such as speeding up planned increases to the Ontario Child Benefit and investing in more affordable housing and daycare spaces – does not necessarily translate into a heavier burden for taxpayers. It could also mean fewer people will join the welfare rolls. We pay one way or the other.

Soaring welfare rolls would also make a mockery of Liberal promises to break the crushing, and ultimately costly, cycle of poverty.

More than 1 million Ontarians already live in poverty, struggling to buy food and pay the rent on incomes insufficient to do both. Report after report has convincingly catalogued just how much keeping people poor costs us all in billions of dollars of increased health, justice and social service costs and lost productivity and tax revenues.

If the province doesn’t make key investments in this budget, some 500,000 more Ontarians with be joining them, warns a report released last week by the Ontario Association of Food Banks. If that is allowed to happen, all Ontarians will pay a heavy price for years to come.

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