Where’s the anti-poverty strategy?

Posted on June 24, 2015 in Social Security Debates

TheSpec.com – Opinion/Commentary – Liberal efforts have been modest at best
Jun 23, 2015.   By Dennis Raphael

Provincial governments in Canada have many ways to reduce poverty among their citizens. The most important ones are public policies that provide low-income people with the economic resources necessary to avoid it. These legislative measures include making it easier for people to unionize, increasing minimum wages so that they provide the most vulnerable Ontarians with income above the poverty level, and providing benefits to those unable to work that put those people above the anti-poverty line. Additional means of reducing poverty include providing the most vulnerable with affordable housing and instituting an affordable child care program that allows taking on employment.

These actions have not been lost on Liberal politicians. While in opposition the Liberals railed against the Mike Harris government for making it more difficult to unionize workplaces in Ontario. Upon Liberal ascendance to power, current Treasury Board Chair Deb Matthews attacked the structure of the social assistance system in a voluminous report of how excessive regulations and low levels of benefits made life a misery for those in the system. And finally never forget how the Liberals in opposition called for the imposition of minimum wages that would prevent many families and unattached adults in poverty from living lives of quiet desperation.

Once in power, the Liberals did nothing about easing unionization for Ontario’s most vulnerable workers, implemented virtually none of the Matthews Report’s recommendation and kept minimum wages well below poverty-escaping levels. In fact, social assistance benefits in real dollars are 57 per cent less than what they were in 1993. They have done little on the housing and child care files.

Critics have pointed out how the Ontario government has failed to take these significant public policy actions to reduce poverty and that the effects of Ontario’s anti-poverty strategy have at best been modest. It is the second phase of the anti-poverty strategy that actually is brilliant in its attempt to manage poverty in the province. What better way to justify the government’s inaction in addressing the basic levers that produce poverty than staking out the position that local solutions to poverty are the key to poverty reduction in Ontario? Creating a fund of $50 million to be made available to local anti-poverty strategy initiatives is an excellent way to shift the focus to local action rather than the failures of the current provincial government.

Even better, it offers a way to silence critics by offering monies that forces them to endorse the government’s unwillingness to address poverty. Local struggling anti-poverty initiatives are carried out by dedicated community agencies that are in desperate need of support. Their anti-poverty effects however are modest and must be supplemented by significant provincial action which to date has been lacking. Applying to this $50 million fund may indeed be irresistible for many, but at what cost? Buying into the “local solutions to poverty” approach accomplishes at least three things. At best, it helps support local initiatives that may make a positive change in the lives of some people suffering from poverty. However at the same time, it effectively relieves the provincial government of its responsibility to address poverty through public policy action. And finally, it silences some anti-poverty critics by buying them off. Do not expect any action on increasing the power of vulnerable workers by facilitating unionization or raising minimum wages to nonpoverty levels. Nor should we expect any change to the social assistance system which serves to institutionalize poverty among so many Ontarians.

On a final note, my students in my Poverty and Health class at York University ask me: Why is it that provincial politicians such as Deputy Premier, President of the Treasury Board, and Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy Deb Matthews seem to be unaware of the Sociology of Poverty and how public policies by governments are both at the root of poverty and the means of reducing it? I answer that Deb Matthews has a BA in Sociology and a PhD in Social Demography from Western University in London. Since it is unlikely that the fields of Sociology and Social Demography are taught differently there than anywhere else in Canada, she knows.

Dennis Raphael, PhD, is a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto. He is author of Poverty in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life, published by Canadian Scholars’ Press.

< http://www.thespec.com/opinion-story/5689742-where-s-the-anti-poverty-strategy-/ >

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