Worrying omens in poverty fight

TheStar.com – comment – Worrying omens in poverty fight
March 31, 2008
Carol Goar

The cracks are starting to show.

Since last fall’s provincial election, anti-poverty groups have stood together, bound by their belief that Premier Dalton McGuinty’s commitment to set firm poverty-reduction targets and an explicit timetable was better than piecemeal promises.

But last week’s disappointing budget strained that solidarity to the breaking point.

“People on social assistance are still unable to pay the rent and purchase necessary food,” said Val Hyman of the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition, an alliance of 20 religious organizations. “Once again the poor are asked to wait.”

“In a province as prosperous as Ontario, no one should work yet still live in poverty,” said Karen Dick of the Workers’ Action Centre, complaining that a minimum wage of $8.75 an hour is not enough to survive on, let alone support a family.

The 25-in-5 Network, made up of more than 100 community groups, took a more patient stance. “It’s reassuring to see the government has responded to the calls for poverty reduction with some concrete initiatives,” said John Campey of Toronto’s social planning council. “But we will be expecting a lot more in the 2009 budget.”

It was a polite divergence.

All three organizations gave McGuinty credit for the positive measures in the budget – $100 million to repair social housing, $135 million to provide dental care to low-income children, $32 million for school nutrition programs and a cost-of-living increase in social assistance payments next November – and all still support the development of a comprehensive poverty-reduction strategy.

But the faith leaders called Tuesday’s poverty initiatives a “minimal down payment” on McGuinty’s election pledge. The community activists treated them as “good harbingers” of what is to come.

Behind these carefully chosen words lie deep passions.

In one camp are the absolutists, who see no justification for chronic poverty in a wealthy society. They believe it is morally wrong to neglect the needs of those who cannot afford food, shelter or a decent standard of living. For them, targets and timetables are no substitute for tangible improvements in people’s lives.

In the other camp are the pragmatists, who are willing to work with the government to achieve incremental progress. They consider it a breakthrough that McGuinty has agreed to produce a detailed poverty-reduction plan by year-end. For them, measurable goals and fixed deadlines are the best assurance of action.

The two groups have clashed before, most publicly on Toronto’s 2005-06 task force on income security for working-age adults. But they buried their differences during last fall’s election campaign and kept them out of sight until last week.

Now that the fissure is visible, it will require a huge effort to keep it from widening.

McGuinty gambled last fall, when he offered to set clear poverty-reduction benchmarks within a year, that the economic storm clouds gathering on Ontario’s horizon wouldn’t worsen. They have.

The 25-in-5 Network, as its name implies, anticipated that the government would embrace its call to reduce poverty by 25 per cent over five years. That now appears highly improbable. Its members are restive, worried, unsure what to do.

These forces will come to a head in nine months’ time, when Deb Matthews, who heads the cabinet committee drafting the anti-poverty plan, converts McGuinty’s pleasing rhetoric into quantifiable objectives.

By then, the economy is likely to be in a full slump. Social assistance costs will be rising. Health-care costs, which already consume 42 cents out of every tax dollar, will be growing. Revenues will be stagnant or shrinking.

That will leave McGuinty with five unenviable choices:

Set very modest poverty-reduction targets.

Stretch out his timeline.

Give up the notion of balancing the budget in the short term.

Raise taxes.

Or admit he can’t keep his commitment to the poor.

Despite the economic storm signals, the majority of low-income advocates are still counting on the premier to deliver an ambitious, well-funded poverty-reduction strategy.

But the consensus is fragile and fraying.

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