Activists push poverty plan

Posted on April 14, 2008 in Governance Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Ontario – Activists push poverty plan
April 14, 2008
Kerry Gillespie & Laurie Monsebraaten, Staff Reporters

Hundreds of activists will gather today to present the McGuinty government with a plan to cut poverty in Ontario by 25 per cent over five years.

The action plan is the work of an ever-increasing coalition – with members as varied as the City of Toronto, teachers’ federations, nurses, Ryerson University and health-care and immigrant groups. It calls itself the 25-in-5 Network for Poverty Reduction.

Its strategy, to be unveiled at a Queen’s Park forum today, calls on Ontario to “poverty proof” the minimum wage; enhance social benefits for children and those unable to work; and beef up supports such as child care and affordable housing.

But the most important message the gathering of more than 500 anti-poverty activists from across the province wants to send the government is that progress on poverty reduction is possible. Others have proved it.

“The U.K. has reduced poverty by nearly 25 per cent in the past five years,” the plan says.

“Quebec as well as Newfoundland and Labrador both have ambitious plans to tackle poverty. It’s Ontario’s turn,” it says.

“We need to get on with action,” says the group’s spokesperson, Jennefer Laidley of the Income Security Advocacy Centre.

While Laidley gives the Liberals credit for steps they have taken so far, she says one of the group’s big concerns is that the province’s flagging economy will stall further progress.

The group will present its proposals to Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews, who chairs the cabinet committee drafting the provincial strategy on poverty reduction, promised by the Liberals by year-end.

The plan, by the network representing more than 100 individuals and groups, sets out three broad areas of attack:

* Sustaining employment, including a minimum wage that lifts full-time workers out of poverty; updated employment standards; drug and dental coverage for low-income workers and an enriched federal income tax benefit for workers.
* Liveable incomes to make it easier to get off welfare and easier for the disabled to access provincial disability supports; an end to the clawback of the national child benefit; expanded federal employment insurance coverage and an enriched federal child benefit.
* Supportive communities that ensure low-income people have access to affordable housing, child care and public transit; a strong public education system; and community programs that help people connect with their neighbours.

“So far the government has been great in terms of announcing its intention to put together a poverty reduction strategy and they’ve given us all the right signals,” said Laidley. “But we need to know the next steps.”

The Liberals have already introduced some measures to ease poverty, including a $135 million dental program for the working poor, an additional $35 million for student nutrition and $100 million to fix aging social housing.

But they have not announced public consultations or sketched out a general direction for their larger strategy. Nor have they suggested any specific goals they hope their plan will achieve.

With a battered manufacturing sector and a slowing economy, the group is concerned it will be fiscally difficult for the province to commit to an aggressive plan with meaningful targets.

“Economic conditions have been used for a long time as an excuse for not doing anything about poverty and if we continue to simply base our priorities on what the economic conditions are … we’re never going to do anything,” Laidley said. “I don’t think the economic conditions are as important as having a long-term plan.”

So far, the government appears to agree. “Some have argued, especially given the struggling nature of the global economy, that now is not the time for us to lend a helping hand to our low-income families. We reject that argument,” McGuinty told reporters last month.

In a recent interview, Matthews said she will release a consultation document later this spring and launch a website with links to national and international research on poverty reduction so that the public can see the same information the government considering.

“What I know for sure is that every community is different in terms of their capacity to address poverty,” said Matthews, who has spent several months meeting informally with groups across the province.

“There are a lot of really good ideas that some communities are (working on) and that others could learn from,” she added.

Laidley said activists are anxious to hear the consultation plans but don’t want them to drag on.

Still, she said, people living in poverty must be heard on “what is a new and really revolutionary approach to dealing with poverty in this province.”

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