Quebec shows the way on poverty

TheStar.com – Opinion – Quebec shows the way on poverty
September 09, 2009.   Carol Goar

The news is good – so good many Quebecers don’t believe it.

Over the past decade, the province’s poverty rate has fallen by 40 per cent. Fewer households are collecting social assistance. More Quebecers are working. Lone-parent families headed by women have seen a 30 per cent increase in their incomes.

Pierre Fortin, a professor of economics at the Université du Québec à Montréal, rounded up these statistics to convince his fellow citizens that Quebec is winning its six-year war on poverty.

“We can continue to spend our time complaining that Quebec is the poverty dump of North America,” he wrote. “Or we can acknowledge the truth: that the money Quebecers have invested in the battle against poverty is producing good results.”

Fortin’s aim was to motivate provincial taxpayers to keep supporting their government as it strives to lift the remaining 875,000 people out of poverty. His fear was that Quebec’s momentum might dissipate if people didn’t realize how much they were achieving.

This is a problem any other province would love to have.

The only headway the rest of the country has made in reducing poverty – and there has been a bit – is attributable to the strong employment growth during the 15-year economic expansion that preceded last fall’s downturn.

But now the economy is struggling and the job outlook is gloomy.

Three other provinces have at least embarked on poverty-reduction programs: Newfoundland in 2006, Ontario in 2008 and Nova Scotia in 2009. But it is too early to see any statistical progress.

Newfoundland seems committed to staying the course. It budgeted $132 million to help low-income families this year. Premier Danny Williams aspires to have the lowest poverty rate in the country by 2014. (It was the second highest when he began.)

Ontario is sending mixed signals. Premier Dalton McGuinty appears to be dampening expectations while waiting for the economy to improve.

His government still hasn’t launched the social assistance review he promised nine months ago. It is going through another round of consultations before unveiling its long-promised affordable housing strategy.

McGuinty has acted on just two fronts. He increased the Ontario child benefit to $1,100 a year in July and his government is hiring more labour standards officers to protect vulnerable workers from exploitative employers.

Nova Scotians don’t even know if their modest plan is still alive. Former premier Rodney MacDonald introduced it in April. He was defeated in June.

Even if all three plans reach the six-year mark as Quebec’s did this year, it is extremely unlikely that any of them will produce the kind of gains Fortin has documented.

Quebec took a comprehensive approach, investing in an array of services that parents need to work and raise children. They include a universal $7-a-day child-care program, a pharmacare program, a generous parental leave program, a refundable tax credit for working parents and a growing stock of affordable housing.

With these supports in place, it makes economic sense for single parents to work. Those who can’t are entitled to a combination of welfare and tax benefits that keeps a family above the poverty line.

There are still holes in its safety net. Large numbers of single adults, especially new immigrants and high school dropouts, remain in poverty. Quebec’s minimum wage is just $9 an hour. (Ontario’s is $9.50. It would take an hourly wage of $12.60 to lift a worker out of poverty.)

But on most fronts, Quebec is making steady progress.

There may come a day when social activists in other provinces have to worry about losing momentum before the war on poverty is won. But most would consider that a luxury.

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