Vital to reduce poverty this year – Opinion/editorial – Vital to reduce poverty this year
October 26, 2008

The rich just seem to get richer, as the latest round of multi-million-dollar exit packages for financial executives has dramatically illustrated. Meanwhile, the gap between the wealthy and the middle to low-income earners has been growing around the world – and faster in Canada than in other industrialized nations, warns a report by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).

The most immediate and troubling consequence of income inequality isn’t that some are getting way ahead, but that too many are being left far behind. Over the course of a decade, poverty in Canada rose alongside income inequality.

More single parents and people living alone, and changes in the job market account for some of that. But government had a hand in it, too: Canada spends less on cash transfers – unemployment, social assistance and family benefits – than most of the 30 OECD nations.

The one saving grace is that despite higher than average poverty rates, the poor in Canada struggle less than elsewhere to get basic goods and housing. But that’s nothing to be overly proud of.

While the incomes of the richest go up, people with middle and low incomes have to work harder and longer just to stay where they are, even with the addition of a second working family member. Even more troubling, this report chronicles the period from 1995 to 2005 – a time of unprecedented growth. Since then, Ontario has faced the decline of its manufacturing sector, the continued replacement of traditional full-time jobs with part-time and self-employed jobs offering few benefits, and the province is now running a deficit.

In light of this, it’s vital that Deb Matthews, the cabinet minister tasked with delivering Ontario’s poverty reduction plan by the end of the year, follows through with her past promises and recent rhetoric. When she says, “We’re full steam ahead,” that must mean more than just getting the report to the printer on time.

The province deserves credit for committing to measure poverty and set targets for its reduction. But that exercise alone offers no comfort to the poor if the economic slowdown is used as an excuse to delay real action. Given that existing social programs have not lifted 1.3 million Ontarians – 800,000 of them children – out of poverty, there is much riding on the “new initiatives” Matthews has promised.

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