Two half-plans to reduce poverty – comment – Two half-plans to reduce poverty
February 27, 2008
Carol Goar

Canadians who care about poverty will face a difficult choice in the next election.

Do they vote for a party with clear poverty reduction targets and a firm timetable? Or do they vote for a party with specific policies to improve the lives of low-income Canadians?

The Liberals are the party with the measurable goal. They would reduce poverty by 30 per cent within five years of taking office.

“We commit to an effort never before seen in Canada,” says party leader Stéphane Dion. “Targets allow the electorate to know when something has been a success.”

The New Democrats are the party with the detailed prescriptions. They would raise the National Child Benefit Supplement to $5,100 a year; invest $1.2 billion in non-profit child care; build 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years; increase the federal minimum wage to $10 an hour; and boost the Working Income Tax Benefit to $2,400 a year.

“I’m tired of sanctimony that gets wrapped up in targets,” says party leader Jack Layton.

Ideally, Dion would flesh out his strategy before the next election and Layton would attach a definite objective to his. Realistically, it looks as if voters will have to pick between the two.

(None of the other national parties has a credible anti-poverty plan. The governing Conservatives may offer work incentives and modest handouts, but little more. The Green party advocates a Guaranteed Livable Income, but admits it needs work.)

The reason Dion is putting targets before tactics is that other governments have made substantial progress by aiming high and marshalling the resources to succeed.

The best example is former British prime minister Tony Blair, who pledged in 1999 to cut poverty by 25 per cent within five years. He achieved a 23 per cent reduction.

In 2002, the Quebec government enacted a law to “progressively make Quebec by 2013 one of the industrialized nations having the least number of people living in poverty.” By 2005, it had lowered its poverty rate from 17.5 per cent to 11.8 per cent.

Recently, Newfoundland (2006) and Ontario (2007) have followed suit.

Food banks, churches, social agencies, low-income groups and legal aid clinics have all endorsed this approach. “It is time to get beyond heartfelt rhetoric,” says Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition of groups working to end child poverty. “We have called on all federal parties to commit to a minimum target for reducing child poverty.”

The reason Layton is laying the planks of his anti-poverty platform before announcing a goal is that he has seen too many ambitious benchmarks announced with great fanfare and missed with a shrug.

There was the 1989 parliamentary resolution to eliminate child poverty by 2000. The rate hasn’t budged. There was the Kyoto Protocol, which Canada adopted in 1998, pledging to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 6 per cent below their 1990 level by 2012. They’ve gone up.

“The Liberals are great at setting targets, but they don’t ever meet them,” Layton says.

Before opting for one approach or the other, voters might want to ponder these questions:

Are the reforms Dion has sketched out – an increase in the Working Income Tax Benefit (amount unspecified); an expansion of the Child Tax Benefit (amount unspecified); an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for low-income seniors (amount unspecified) – enough to produce a 30 per cent reduction in poverty?

Are they affordable in light of his other commitments, which include lower corporate taxes, a paydown of the national debt and federal support for green technology and urban infrastructure?

Is Layton’s five-point plan, which he would pay for by cancelling the corporate income tax reductions scheduled by the Tories, financially feasible?

Would he get the provincial co-operation he needs to pull it off?

Two partial anti-poverty plans are certainly better than none. But Canadians are still waiting for a leader who can bring together the vision and the means.

Carol Goar’s column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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