Glimmers of hope in poverty fight

Posted on October 18, 2008 in Governance Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Glimmers of hope in poverty fight
October 17, 2008. Carol Goar

Today, people of conscience in every country will take time to mark International Day to Eradicate Poverty.

Canadians will meet in council chambers and classrooms, homes and churches to renew their commitment to fight poverty.

The tradition began 15 years ago, when the United Nations designated Oct. 17 as a day for humanity to stand together against the most ruthless killer and greatest cause of suffering in the world. It has been observed – usually by a devoted few – ever since.

For Canadian anti-poverty campaigners, this year’s anniversary comes at a particularly challenging time.

The nation has just re-elected a prime minister who believes his only obligation to the poor is to keep taxes low, the budget balanced and the credit flowing. Stephen Harper was the one leader in the recent election campaign with no poverty reduction strategy, no plan to raise Canada’s level of foreign aid and no measures to help volunteers and social activists alleviate privation in their communities.

The global economy is on the precipice of a major recession. As governments scramble to shore up the international financial system and taxpayers worry about their jobs, homes and retirement savings, those already struggling to afford the basics risk sinking deeper into poverty.

Here in Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty, who pledged to set clear poverty reduction targets and firm guidelines a year ago, is now warning that the cupboard is bare. He is asking low-income citizens to be patient and accept modest gains until the province’s finances are healthier.

It is a dispiriting backdrop for a day meant to highlight the message that poverty can be beaten.

But even in the bleakest times, there are reasons for hope.

In Toronto, the anti-poverty movement is stronger and more united than it has been in decades. Community groups, unions, churches, immigrant organizations, child welfare advocates and low-income people themselves have set aside their differences over priorities and tactics to exert maximum pressure on the provincial government.

They are braced for a letdown when McGuinty unveils his poverty reduction plan later this year. They are determined to keep fighting.

And they appear to be making headway with the public, if not the policy-makers. A national survey, taken on the eve of the federal campaign, showed that 53 per cent of Canadians considered poverty a very important electoral issue. It ranked fourth on the nation’s priority list, a prominence it has never achieved before.

Although the Conservatives won Tuesday’s federal election, the three opposition parties captured more than half of the seats in Parliament. The Liberals, New Democrats and Bloc Québécois all want Ottawa to tackle poverty. Their policies are very similar. If they are prepared to use their combined strength to advance policies that will help struggling Canadians, they have the votes to make headway.

It will take political maturity and a strong prod from the Canadians who voted for them. But there is potential for progress under a minority government.

What is perhaps most heartening is the creativity in the non-profit sector. Tired of waiting for governments to act, individuals and civil society groups are coming up with their own ways to address poverty.

Some of them, such as micro-credit, developed by an economics professor in Bangladesh, are globally transformative. That innovation has revolutionized lending practices in the world’s poorest countries and spawned thousands of thriving businesses.

Others, such as Pathways to Education, launched by a public health nurse in one of Toronto’s most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, are potent local catalysts. That program has dramatically reduced the high-school dropout rate in one inner city district and become a model for other communities.

Driven by necessity, social innovators, such as Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank and Carolyn Acker of the Regent Park Community Health Centre, are stretching the limits of the possible.

For those working tirelessly to lift their fellow citizens out poverty at home and abroad, promising glimmers and isolated success stories don’t provide a lot of sustenance.

Luckily, they don’t need a lot.

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