Progress finally possible on social issues

Posted on November 19, 2014 in Social Security Debates – Opinion/Commentary – The political stars are finally aligned for progress on social issues.
Nov 18 2014.   By: Carol Goar, Star Columnist

This should be a season of hope for Toronto’s social agencies. Rarely have the political stars been better aligned for them.

But that is not evident from their behaviour. They have released a spate of grim reports in recent weeks. Child poverty has reached “epidemic” levels, according to the Alliance for a Poverty-Free Toronto. Hunger has climbed by 10 per cent since the recession, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank. The shortage of licensed child care is so severe that kids are carrying lifelong scars, according to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, the Atkinson Centre for Society and Child Development and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The mismatch is jarring.

On the positive side:

– Toronto now has a mayor with a social conscience and a determination to lead the fight against poverty in the city. Before even being sworn in, John Tory has pledged to mobilize the municipal government, citizens, businesses, educators, churches, unions and civic organizations in an all-out effort to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Ontario now has a premier who describes “social justice” as her top priority. Although she is constrained by a deficit-burdened government, Kathleen Wynne is using her words and actions to show her solidarity with those on the front lines. She makes time to attend their meetings and fundraisers. She includes those who are struggling with adversity in her public speeches. Moreover, she lives in Toronto and understands its needs.

Even in Ottawa, where the word compassion is seldom heard, the next election is less than a year away. There are two credible alternatives to Prime Minister Stephen Harper. New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair has put affordable child care back on the agenda after a nine-year hiatus. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, while frustratingly vague, has pledged to improve access to post-secondary education, early childhood learning and public pensions.

None of this guarantees better times ahead. But the political winds are blowing in a favourable direction. The Rob Ford era is over. The Wynne government is starting to tackle the social deficits left by former premier Dalton McGuinty. And Harper’s iron grip looks breakable for the first time in almost nine years.

Why all the gloom then?

It is partly habit. Social agencies are so used to ratcheting up their distress signals each year in hopes of gaining attention and improving their chances of government funding that they do it regardless of economic conditions or shifts in the political landscape.

It is partly a product of the time lag between statistics and reality. Most of the numbers on which the recent spate of reports is based are two or more years old. In 2012, McGuinty and his tight-fisted finance minister Dwight Duncan were cutting spending aggressively to satisfy the bond-raters, the Ontario Child Benefit was $92 a month (it’s now $110); the provincial minimum wage was $10.25 per hour (it’s $11) and Ontario’s unemployment rate was 7.9 per cent (it is currently 6.5 per cent). It is possible — but improbable — that these developments had no impact whatsoever on Toronto’s social indicators.

It is partly a legitimate wariness about promises made by politicians. In 1989, all three political parties solemnly pledged to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. The rate consistently rose. In 2008 McGuinty finally introduced a province-wide Poverty Reduction Strategy. It left out nearly everything low-income Ontarians had asked for: a boost in social assistance rates, affordable housing, a nutrition allowance. Three prime ministers have promised a national child care program since 1984. Not one has delivered.

And it is partly because it is easier — and safer — to lament the lack of progress than highlight incipient opportunities. The storyline follows a familiar trajectory. It produces predictable media coverage. And it insulates social activists from being blamed down the road for failing to capitalize on the possibilities they heralded.

But there is price to pay for accentuating the negative. It reinforces the belief that poverty is immutable. It bolsters the already widespread notion that Toronto’s social woes are too deep to solve. And it leaves citizens wondering whether anything works — or can work — to make the city more equitable.

It is true Toronto faces daunting social challenges. But this is a moment to let some light into the gloom.

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