What’s good and what can be improved in the national poverty strategy

Posted on August 29, 2018 in Social Security Policy Context

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors
Aug. 28, 2018.   By

The federal government’s release of its national anti-poverty strategy is an important step forward. It comes 16 years after Quebec adopted the first anti-poverty strategy at the provincial level and showed the way forward for governments.

In 2005, I worked at the National Council of Welfare, the federal anti-poverty agency later abolished by the Harper government. At the council, we tried to popularize the policy idea of a national anti-poverty strategy like they had in Quebec. Gradually, we have been successful in that all provinces either have a strategy or are creating one.

Until now, the federal government bucked that trend and claimed at one time that poverty reduction was fundamentally a provincial responsibility. In 2013, James Moore, then a federal minister, claimed it was the role of the provinces to deal with child poverty, saying: “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.”

We have come a long way in just five years. Particularly laudable is establishing a national goal in terms of poverty reduction, establishing a national poverty measure and setting up a national council on poverty.

The target of halving the rate of poverty by 2030 is, of course, moving policy in a positive direction. As is the fact that we now finally have one national measure of poverty, the official poverty line, unlike the many decades when Statistics Canada said it only could measure low income and not poverty, as if talking about the poor would seemingly bring shame on the country!

However, there is still a lot that can be improved in the new strategy.

First, there is no new money for any existing or new policies included. As if what we have been spending so far can do the job if we only add all of the existing spending and put it together. Clearly more money around issues such as housing is desperately needed. While the framework for the fairly new national housing strategy is generally good, the target of building only 100,000 units over the next 12 years is not enough.

Secondly, while a national strategy is a great start, we also need strategies for important sections of the population, including Indigenous peoples, that are made together with them as partners. Other important sections of the population include seniors, where the rates of poverty are increasing, as well as racialized communities and single mothers, where the poverty rates are much higher than the average.

Thirdly, while we have chosen a market basket measure to determine the official poverty line, this measure needs to be constantly updated and is generally a lower standard than the Low Income Measure the UN and most other countries use, based on earning less than 50 per cent of the median after-tax income. We have to keep updating the LIM so we can compare ourselves to other countries.

Fourthly, we need an autonomous, government-funded organization to track how we are doing and measure anti-poverty programs across the federal, provincial and territorial levels. Let’s re-establish the National Council of Welfare or set up a similar organization that can do the job.

Fifthly, now that the Ontario government has abandoned the pilot basic income project, the federal government should take this on. Basic income is a policy direction that can assure all citizens have a life above the poverty line and enable them to avoid the difficulties and humiliation that often occur with existing social welfare programs.

Finally, we need to move a lot faster and lot stronger on poverty. Twelve years to cut only half of those in poverty means millions will remain in poverty, as today almost five million are poor.

Every year people spend in poverty can be a lost year for them in terms of life goals, family, health and nutrition; it can also have unseen consequences that affect their whole future and that of their families.

This should be not acceptable in any country. In Canada, one of the richest G7 countries, there is no excuse for poverty at all.

John Anderson has been the policy director of the Official Opposition and the Canadian Co-operative Association and a senior policy analyst at the National Council of Welfare, as well as research director of the Canadian Council on Social Development.


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