Senators keep poverty in spotlight

TheStar.com – Opinion/Comment – Senators keep poverty in spotlight
Published On Wed Dec 09 2009.   By Carol Goar Editorial Board                

Inspired by the groundbreaking report on poverty tabled by the late Senator David Croll 38 years ago, a committee of seven senators has spent the past two years producing a new blueprint for a new century.

Their report, released Tuesday, lacks the passion and clarity of the original. But it is comprehensive, thoughtful and – for its time – courageous.

The senators, headed by Liberal Art Eggleton and Conservative Hugh Segal, knew from the outset that Prime Minister Stephen Harper had no interest in a plan to break the poverty cycle. They watched the economy weaken and the deficit balloon.

Yet they concluded unanimously: “Eradicating poverty is not only the humane and decent priority of a civilized democracy, but absolutely essential to a productive and expanding economy.”

Those are bold words in today’s Ottawa.

The senators heard from 175 witnesses. They held five round tables and travelled the country, listening to low-income Canadians. They visited 20 agencies serving those in need. They read countless studies and briefs. They persevered through an election and four sittings of Parliament.

The result, In From the Margins: A Call of Action on Poverty, Housing and Homelessness, is a 362-page report with 74 recommendations. The entire document is worth reading, but here are the highlights.

The senators tackled two fundamental problems. The first was the failure of Canada’s existing income-support policies to lift people out of poverty (unsolved since Croll’s day). The second was the broken link between a job and a decent standard of living (new in the last 15 years.)

They vigorously debated – but did not recommend – a guaranteed annual income; a single cash payment replacing all the current benefits and social programs; and creating an income floor through which no Canadian could fall.

Instead, the senators proposed an incremental approach, calling for a series of reforms that would move Canada toward that objective.

As a first step, they called on Ottawa to adopt a core goal of eradicating poverty. This would mean rethinking all programs that merely make poverty more manageable.

Then they turned to specifics:

Raise the national child benefit to a maximum of $5,000 by 2012. (It currently stands at $3,416.)

Increase the federal working income tax benefit to bring all Canadians with full-time employment up to the poverty line. (It is now capped at $522 for an individual and $1,044 for a family.)

Establish an income floor for Canadians with disabilities.

Set the federal minimum wage at $10 per hour and require all government suppliers to meet that standard.

Extend employment insurance coverage to the millions of workers now excluded from the program.

Lead a national drive to reduce the high-school dropout rate and remove the barriers confronting low-income students who want to go to college or university.

Require all agencies receiving federal health dollars to address the underlying causes of illness and disease: poverty, unemployment, substandard housing and poor nutrition.

Develop a national housing program.

Put in place a pan-Canadian early learning strategy.

Publish a green paper within one year, setting out the costs and benefits of existing support programs and assessing the feasibility of a guaranteed annual income.

They proposed special measures for urban aboriginal people, immigrants and seniors.

Harper will have trouble dismissing their report as a Liberal fantasy, when it has the strong backing of two prominent Conservative senators, Segal and Wilbert Keon, a world renowned cardiac surgeon. But he could cherry-pick a couple of market-friendly recommendations or simply ignore it.

The seven senators aren’t expecting a warm reception. But they believe they have a responsibility, as parliamentarians, to keep poverty on the national agenda and a duty, as public figures, to speak for the voiceless and vulnerable.

(The report is available at http://www.parl.gc.ca/40/2/parlbus/commbus/senate/com-e/citi-e/rep-e/rep02dec09-e.pdf)

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