Strengthen poverty bill

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial – Strengthen poverty bill
April 20, 2009

Unemployment numbers are soaring, welfare cases are rising and food banks are reporting shortages. The economic downturn has made Ontario’s plan to reduce poverty even more crucial than when it was first promised by the Liberals.

The initial target is to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent within five years. We have seen targets like that before, and they have been missed. But what makes this plan somewhat different is the accompanying legislation, which would make poverty-reduction an ongoing government responsibility.

Children’s Minister Deb Matthews, who designed the province’s anti-poverty strategy, states: “The only way we’re ever going to succeed in the fight against poverty is for it to become a core responsibility of governments now and in the future.” Political interests and governments come and go, so the anti-poverty bill – now before a legislative committee – would be a tool to hold politicians to account.

Right now, though, the bill falls short of that objective. It requires public consultation only according to the minister’s whim; annual reports to be released on a website; and a review of the overall poverty reduction strategy at least every five years, to be conducted by the government itself.

As one anti-poverty advocate puts it: “I don’t think we can trust any government to give a frank assessment of their own efforts.”

Underscoring that point, Conservative MPPs last month rose in the Legislature during second reading debate on the bill to declare that past premier Mike Harris had done the most for Ontario’s poor. He lifted 257,000 Ontarians out of poverty by providing “hope and opportunity,” they said. The booming economy did that. While Harris can take some credit for the economy, he also slashed welfare rates by 22 per cent, thereby relegating those who couldn’t find work to even deeper poverty.

It’s heartening, therefore, that those same Conservative MPPs have joined the New Democrats in calling for an amendment to the anti-poverty bill to require an independent five-year review.

Anti-poverty advocates are also calling for the annual reports to be delivered not just online but in the Legislature, to give opposition politicians a good opportunity to raise concerns.

The activists also want the legislation to state explicitly that the ultimate goal is a province free of poverty, including adults. It isn’t enough to reduce poverty for children, says advocate Sarah Blackstock. “If that’s not the goal, why are we doing this?” Indeed.

More tools for public accountability could also be included in the legislation, which is undergoing public hearings today and tomorrow. But ultimately it is up to Ontarians to ensure that this government and its successors stay the course and end the scourge of poverty.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is to be applauded for tackling this issue. Helping the poor is never going to be a political winner. But his government can’t rest on its laurels just yet. The legislation can and should be improved.

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