The high cost of poverty

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Mon Jan 02 2012.

“How are we treating those who are less fortunate?” Premier Dalton McGuinty asked that question in 2007. “It’s one of the best tests of government,” he said. That was when he first committed to reducing the stubbornly high levels of poverty that strip far too many Ontarians of the opportunities they need to succeed.

So, what does McGuinty have to say now — four years and an election later — about the province’s ongoing plans to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent? Not much, apparently.

The third anniversary of the government’s much-touted poverty reduction strategy came and went with little fanfare. No public announcement; no big event. Children’s Minister Eric Hoskins quietly released the annual progress report — the absolute minimum required by legislation — and met with some advocates.

That poverty has fallen so far off the political radar isn’t much of a surprise. The Liberal government is telling anyone who will listen that the provincial cupboard is bare. There is no money for anything save the government’s biggest priorities of health and education. Even there the province is looking for ways to reduce costs.

But that is precisely why no one can afford to ignore the fact that nearly 1.7 million Ontarians live in poverty.

Poverty breeds ill health and that costs Ontario dearly. Just moving the bottom fifth up a rung on the income ladder could save billions of dollars in health-care expenses, one study found. And this government, which has invested heavily in education, is well aware that children from low-income families tend not to do as well in school as their peers. They fall behind, drop out in greater numbers and face higher rates of poverty as adults. The cost of poverty in Ontario has been estimated as high as $13 billion a year when health care, criminal justice and lost productivity are taken into account.

McGuinty, of course, knows all this. “There is no shortage of evidence that if we don’t address these problems in the early years the costs will only be greater later on,” he said just a few months before enshrining into law Ontario’s goal of reducing child poverty by 25 per cent by the end of 2013.

His government has made important changes. In 2009, the first year of the strategy, the minimum wage jumped up and, most importantly, the Ontario Child Benefit was increased by hundreds of dollars helping to raise low-income families out of poverty. Nearly 20,000 children were lifted out of poverty between 2008 and 2009. The government has also started a process to reform social assistance; if done properly it will make it easier for more Ontarians to get back on their feet and gainfully employed.

But the government is still a long way off its goal to lift 90,000 children out of poverty. And at the same time as poverty rates declined slightly for children, they went up for adults and seniors. Food banks can’t keep up with growing demand.

So it’s troubling that the third progress report on Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy spends most of its 26 pages rehashing earlier successes and is light on new measures. Now is not the time for the government to rest on its laurels.

Ontario’s impoverished families and taxpayers can’t afford that.

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