No time to let up on poverty front

Posted on January 2, 2008 in Social Security Debates – comment – No time to let up on poverty front
January 02, 2008

If our political leaders muster the will to act, 2008 could very well mark the year in the history books when the appalling but silent enemy of poverty in Canada was finally engaged.

It has been a year now since the Star launched its War on Poverty in a continuing series of editorials and news stories aimed at documenting the toll poverty takes on one in every 10 Canadians and nearly one in five of the children living in one of the richest countries in the world.

As the public awareness of the depth and breadth of the problem turned to concern and then outrage, the issue started to register on the political radar screen. As a result, numerous measures were introduced, most notably in the last provincial budget, to improve the lives of those who have been pushed to the margins of our society.

But implementation of the changes pledged has been achingly slow, and more needs to be done at both the provincial and federal levels of government if poverty is to be eradicated, or at least greatly reduced.

To his credit, Premier Dalton McGuinty has made a credible, albeit modest, start to raise the incomes of the poor. In his March budget, he pledged to raise the minimum wage, which then stood at $8, to $10.25 in stages by 2010, a move that will eventually make a difference in lifting the living standards of many of the lowest paid workers.

McGuinty also introduced a new Ontario Child Benefit aimed at lower-income families whether they work or collect social assistance. The $2.1 billion plan will provide $250 for each child under 18 this year, rising to $1,100 by 2011.

He also reduced the clawback of the National Child Benefit supplement from families on social assistance by $50 a month, although that too does not take effect until 2011.

In the recent provincial election, McGuinty pledged $45 million to provide basic dental care for about 500,000 low-income workers who cannot afford private insurance. And he vowed to bring in full-day junior and senior kindergarten, which will eventually free up 42,000 full-time daycare spaces that will help many parents return to work.

Most important of all, though, McGuinty made the war on poverty a central plank in his election platform, promising a comprehensive strategy, complete with targets and timetables, which will give Ontarians the yardsticks they need to assess the progress he actually makes. He has since appointed a cabinet committee on poverty headed by Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews to develop the targets and timetables over the next year.

While Queen’s Park appears ready to do much to ease poverty, it cannot begin to hope to solve the problem without Ottawa’s help.

The province and the federal government need to develop a full partnership in the fight against poverty. That’s because Queen’s Park lacks sufficient money to tackle major poverty-related issues, such as the lack of public housing in Toronto and other cities, or to provide improved child benefits and earning supplements for low-wage workers, as well as more child care.

And to keep people who lose their jobs from falling into the welfare trap, Ottawa should also revamp the Employment Insurance system to make it the safety net it was originally intended to be. In its current form, EI now provides benefits to only 22 per cent of workers in Toronto who lose their jobs.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Tory government have done little to tackle poverty. About the only significant move has been to introduce a modest working income supplement that pays at most $500 annually to singles and $1,000 to parents.

But with a federal election almost a certainty this year, it will be difficult for Harper to keep ignoring a problem, which Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion has termed “an immense human tragedy.” Dion has already pledged to develop a broad-based strategy to combat poverty.

With a child poverty rate that places Canada near the back of the pack – 22nd among 26 wealthy industrialized countries – the federal government needs to step up to the plate.

Nowhere is the need for swift, concerted action more urgent or pressing than in Toronto. A groundbreaking United Way report last month found that nearly 30 per cent of Toronto families with children – almost 93,000 families – now live in poverty, up from 16 per cent in 1990. That rate is far higher than in the rest of the Greater Toronto Area, the province and the country. For single-parent families, the poverty rate in Toronto comes close to an astonishing 50 per cent.

Those disgraceful figures alone underscore the need for a far more comprehensive and rapid response.

In 2008, several steps can be taken by Queen’s Park to make a real impact on poverty. If Ottawa helps out, which seems unlikely as long as Harper is Prime Minister, then even more progress can be made.

First, the Ontario government must include money in its spring budget to implement the dental-care program for low-income workers that it promised in last October’s election.

Second, the province should move more quickly to fully implement the Ontario Child Benefit. There is no reason to make poor Ontarians wait up to three years more for help they should have had long ago.

Third, Ontario must also deal quickly with the deplorable state of public housing, particularly in Toronto, where 164,000 tenants with an average income of only $14,000 live. The bill in Toronto for fixing these buildings stands at $300 million. While McGuinty has pledged to develop an affordable housing policy to deal with the 122,000 Ontario families currently on waiting lists, Ottawa too must do its part. Across Canada, 1.8 million households need affordable places to live.

While McGuinty can make a difference, Ottawa’s resources will be needed if poverty in Canada is to be relegated to the history books. With Dion committed to a national strategy, the onus is now on Harper.

But as we said in our New Year’s Day editorial last year kicking off the Star’s War on Poverty, what Harper is lacking is leadership. At that time, we cited a National Council of Welfare warning: “If there is no long-term vision, no plan, no one identified to lead or carry out the plan, no resources assigned and no accepted measure of results, we will be mired in the consequences of poverty for generations to come.”

A year later, those words unfortunately still hold true.

In 2007, a real start was made in the struggle to lower poverty rates. In 2008, there is yet another opportunity to make a real difference in the daily lives of millions of poverty-stricken Canadians.

We cannot let this opportunity pass.

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