Activists call for poverty plan to become law

Posted on October 28, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Ontario – Activists call for poverty plan to become law
October 27, 2008. Laurie Monsebraaten, Social Justice Reporter

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s promised plan to cut poverty should become law to ensure Queen’s Park remains focused on the problem, activists say.

The law, they say, should include a citizen’s advisory committee and annual reporting so the public can monitor the government’s progress.

As the December deadline for the plan approaches, about 400 activists calling for the province to cut poverty by 25 per cent in five years are meeting at Queen’s Park today. They plan to present their call for legislation, along with four other “tests” of an effective strategy, to Children’s Minister Deb Matthews, who heads up the provincial cabinet committee currently drafting the multi-year plan.

“It’s really important to enshrine this commitment into legislation,” said Peter Clutterbuck of the 25 and 5 Network for Poverty Reduction, a broad coalition of provincial groups and individuals including municipalities, school boards, universities, public health units, chambers of commerce and community agencies.

“It’s what Quebec has done, it’s what Britain is talking about doing and it makes it harder to undo,” he said in an interview.

Clutterbuck said the group is pleased McGuinty and Matthews have said they remain committed to fighting poverty, despite the economic downturn and the province’s warning last week that it expects to run a $500 million deficit this year.

But he said activists will be watching to see that the strategy reflects what thousands of Ontarians told the government during more than 100 public consultations and private meetings over the spring and summer.

With 1.3 million Ontarians in poverty, they expect the government to set a target of reducing this by 25 per cent in five years. This would mean cutting the overall provincial poverty rate from 10 per cent to 7.5 per cent and the child poverty rate from 12 per cent to 9 per cent. If that happened, 323,000 people including 80,000 children, would be lifted out of poverty.

The group wants a clear way to measure progress, starting with an income level such as the Low Income Measure, used in Europe. Under the LIM, someone is poor if they live on less than 50 per cent of the median income.

They expect to see specific commitments to make work pay; provide livable incomes for those unable to work; and beef up community supports such as affordable housing and child care.

And they want measures in the 2009 budget to kick-start the plan.

“We recognize these are difficult economic times,” Clutterbuck said. “But it’s really important to maintain the faith of the community to get a good down payment in the first budget, even if it’s not of the same scale as originally hoped.”

Brampton single mom Dawn Marie Harriott, whose life spiralled into poverty four years ago when she left an abusive spouse, hopes Queen’s Park doesn’t use the souring economy as an excuse to sit on its hands.

“I’m a resourceful person. I was making $50,000-a-year with benefits and a pension and a car,” she said. “But I lost my job, my housing – everything because of the abuse. And now I’m stuck on social assistance and I can’t get out.”

Her $1,060-a-month basement apartment costs more than her $904 welfare cheque, meaning she and her 11-year-old son Calvin are forced to survive on food banks and his child benefits.

She has had part-time jobs, but ended up further behind because every penny she made was deducted from her welfare check. And she’s afraid to accept full-time work because most jobs don’t provide benefits during the first three to six months – if at all – and Calvin needs expensive medication to control his attention deficit disorder, she said.

“There’s no recognition for travel costs and other employment expenses. We need a better bridge from assistance to employment,” she said.

In addition to Matthews, the group will hear from economist Armine Yalnizyan, of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and Lisa Donner, head of the American “Half in Ten” campaign, which aims to cut poverty in the U.S. by 50 per cent in 10 years – a goal adopted by Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.

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