Matthews takes aim at poverty

Posted on February 4, 2008 in Social Security Debates – Ontario – Matthews takes aim at poverty
February 04, 2008
Kerry Gillespie, Queen’s Park Bureau

Ontario’s anti-poverty czar Deb Matthews often talks about a homeless man named Murray. Million-dollar Murray.

That’s what U.S. officials estimate the Nevada man cost the government in hospital visits, treatment programs and other services before he died.

With Ontario’s disjointed and inadequate network of supports for the poor, it’s just the kind of thing that could happen here, says Matthews, minister of children and youth services.

As chair of the cabinet committee on poverty reduction, she plans to change that.

In short: Matthews wants to fix the existing system so money is spent on people before they fall through the cracks and cost a fortune, move forward with targeted programs that actually give poor and vulnerable people the support they need, and enable Ontario’s less fortunate to live happier lives.

With provincial politicians talking about lifting people out of poverty – a subject that hasn’t been this popular in decades – expectations among community advocates are high, perhaps too high.

Can Matthews deliver?

“We’re not going to solve poverty in four years, we’re not, but are we going to take steps in that direction? Absolutely, we can. We must,” says Matthews.

“I’m not prepared to throw up my hands and say it’s too hard.”

Today, her committee starts to flesh out Premier Dalton McGuinty’s election promise to introduce firm poverty-reduction targets so the government can be measured on its progress.

Along with choosing the all-important goals – some groups are already pushing for a 25 per cent cut to poverty in 5 years – the committee will develop a comprehensive strategy to give the government a realistic shot at meeting its target.

With more than 1 million Ontarians living in poverty, there’s a lot at stake.

Ontario already has plenty of programs designed to help those in need, from homeless shelters, food banks and welfare to special education programs and addiction and mental health programs.

But few are connected and people fall through, leading Matthews to say: “We have people accountable for programs but we don’t really have people accountable for people.”

That’s how a million-dollar Murray happens.

Children grow out of foster care but don’t get the help they need to cope so their next home may be a jail cell. Someone gets out of prison or a psychiatric facility but can’t find an apartment they can afford so they live in an expensive shelter.

“These are the people who are costing a lot of money and they are not living very happy lives,” says Matthews.

This is something that Matthews, raised by a social activist mother and a politically active father, finds unacceptable.

“I was really raised with the expectation that, because we were pretty lucky in life, that we had an obligation to help people who weren’t so lucky in life,” says Matthews, referring to her wealthy upbringing in London, Ont., where her father had a successful construction business.

That doesn’t make her a soft touch who will push the premier to fund every initiative that comes along.

“Too many programs are based on `we think this would help.’ Show me the evidence that this works,” says Matthews.

“She has very deep passions but they’re based on knowledge,” says Matthews’ brother-in-law, former Ontario premier David Peterson.

“It’s not like she just feels sorry for poor people, which she does, but it’s that she understands the issues and the problems and can bring rationality to attack them and can easily dispel the myths that surround them.”

Matthews, 54, is the consummate overachiever. She completed her PhD in social demography during her first term as MPP for London North Centre. As parliamentary assistant to the social services minister, she toured the province for a year before recommending ways to make it easier for mentally ill Ontarians on welfare to get jobs. And she was the driving force behind the child benefit, introduced in 2007, which when fully implemented will help some 1.3 million children in low-income homes.

“She’s only got one problem … expectations are too high around her,” says Peterson.

“(Poverty) is not an easy issue to make progress with. You can, but it’s never going to be as good or as fast as the critics would like.”

For many, the situation is dire and getting worse.

Ontario is the child poverty centre of the country with 345,000 poor kids. According to a recent United Way report, 30 per cent of Toronto families are living in poverty, compared to 16 per cent in 1990.

Advocates are demanding immediate and sweeping changes. The appointment of Matthews – who is respected by community groups – has raised expectations of real change and not just political posturing.

“She’s a remarkably responsive politician, she actually answers calls,” says Susan Pigott of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, who worked with Matthews on an income security task force.

Last year, when the labour minister was unavailable to attend a forum on precarious work, it was Matthews who stepped into the breach and faced more than 200 people frustrated and angry over the lack of provincial legislation to protect part-time, temporary and contract workers.

It was at a community event where Matthews, then a mother of three, and a 49-year-old student at the University of Western Ontario, decided to become a politician.

In 2002, she and her eldest daughter, also a university student at the time, were protesting against skyrocketing tuition.

Surrounded by the young students who organized the march on then Conservative education minister Dianne Cunningham’s office in London, Matthews decided that if she really cared about what was going on around her, she’d better try to do something about it.

“I had this thought pass my mind: these kids are using all the levers of power they know how to pull to affect change. What am I doing?”

She put her statistics courses to work and calculated her odds of winning. Matthews gave herself a 1 in 3 chance to win the Liberal nomination and, if she won that, a 1 in 5 chance of beating the incumbent Cunningham.

Despite those odds, she ran anyway. She beat Cunningham in the 2003 election. After being re-elected in 2007, she joined the ranks of cabinet in the Liberal government.

Matthews comes from deep – but shifting – political roots.

Her grandfather was a member of the CCF, the precursor of the New Democratic Party; her father, Don Matthews, was once president of the federal Progressive Conservative party; and through her brother-in-law David Peterson, she found her way into the Liberal camp, where she accumulated impressive credentials.

She ran Peterson’s successful bid to become an MPP in 1975, co-chaired the Liberal party’s provincial campaigns in 1987 and 1995 elections and was elected president of the Ontario Liberal Party in 2003.

In the midst of it all, she raised three children, now all in their 20s.

“I really believe in the power of political action … it is a tremendous vehicle for social change,” she says.

But politics must be done for the right reasons, she adds.

“Don’t just aspire to have a position, aspire to do something with it.”

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