Put poverty on the agenda

TheStar.com – comment/editorial – Put poverty on the agenda
January 16, 2008

When Parliament resumes on Jan. 28, politicians from all parties need to turn their attention to the appalling state of poverty in this country and the need to find solutions.

With fears of a recession growing across the country, particularly in Ontario, poverty is not apt to be at the top of the list of political concerns. But there are many reasons why it should be.

An astonishing one in 10 Canadians, or 3.4 million people, already live in poverty, and a recession will only make the situation worse.

That’s because Employment Insurance (EI), supposedly designed to protect workers who are laid off in bad economic times, is no longer much help. Due to rule changes implemented by the Chrétien government, EI now covers only 40 per cent of unemployed workers across the country, half of the proportion covered in 1990. Here in Toronto, the situation is even worse, with just 22 per cent of unemployed workers covered by EI.

So if workers are laid off due to a recession, many of them will have no recourse but to turn to welfare for support. And welfare benefits are below the poverty line.

Yet in Ottawa, there is little talk of helping the poorest among us and less leadership.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is trying instead to woo middle-class voters in an election expected this year with another cut in the GST. He has also slashed corporate taxes.

For his part, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has promised to make poverty reduction a central theme of his election platform. He has committed his party to reducing overall poverty by 30 per cent and child poverty by 50 per cent in five years. That would mean 1 million fewer Canadians would fall below Statistic’s Canada’s low-income cut-off line and the number of poor children would be cut from the current level of 778,000 to about 390,000.

But Dion has not said how the Liberals would achieve those goals or pay for the programs. He has not even promised to develop a Canadian definition of poverty, which many see as an important first step that would allow us to hold him to his promise.

To date, Dion has only briefly outlined several measures to help the poor, including expanding the child tax benefit and improving two of the Conservatives’ tax-credit programs to make sure they also apply to people who don’t pay income taxes. These measures do not add up to a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.

Ken Dryden, chair of the Liberal caucus’s social development committee, is in the midst of a national tour engaging Canadians in the fight on poverty. But he says the Liberals have no plans to develop a new poverty definition and further details of their program will not be released until their election platform is revealed.

As for NDP Leader Jack Layton, he has promised he would raise the child tax benefit, restart a national housing program, and provide more help for new immigrants. But he has not outlined an overall poverty reduction strategy with definable targets.

Clearly, all three parties need to make poverty a higher priority in the coming parliamentary session. They should also commit to working with the provinces, which have responsibility for programs like housing and child care but lack the resources to fund them fully.

Fighting poverty is not simply about the poor. It is about the well-being of the entire country. That is why politicians in past decades created the social safety net that now so obviously needs repairs.

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