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Pat Cullen: Flawed but worthy - the Trudeau poverty-reduction strategy

Justin Trudeau speaks during a funding announcement at the East Pictou Middle School on Tuesday. The federal government will contribute $90 million towards twinning a section of the 104 between Sutherland's River and Antigonish.
Justin Trudeau speaks during a funding announcement at the East Pictou Middle School. - Adam MacInnis

The Trudeau government's Opportunity for All-Canada's First Poverty Reduction Strategy plans to cut poverty in Canada by 20 per cent in two years, which will give around 900,000 people a modest standard-of-living.

By 2030 this will rise to 50 per cent and promises to do the same for 2.1 million Canadians, based on 2015 population figures. No new programs will be introduced. The Social Development Department of Jean-Yves Duclos has, between 2015 and 2019, spent and will spend $22 billion on a number of initiatives including benefits to indigent seniors, children, low-wage earners, and affordable housing. In addition, $12 billion or more has been set aside for 2019 to 2020, a Sept., 7 email from Employment and Social Development Canada read. But there are almost five million Canadians living in poverty, according to the national organization Canada Without Poverty (CWP).

So, what of the remaining two million or so? Does this simply mean that by the end of 2030 they will continue to be impoverished, or will they be able to build on existing programs and on the progress of others to take steps toward a better future?

t is a massive document that uses the words "dignity" and "security" a fair amount. All to the good. For it means its authors, who spent over a year consulting with and getting input from an advisory panel which included those living in poverty, must realize there is little "dignity" or "security" for the roughly 23,000 people in this province who rely on the public charity offered by food banks to survive.

The same may be said of the old-age pensioner who must use whatever increases they get under the guaranteed income supplement to cope with rent hikes, or the increased cost of labor and materials for those living in their homes and trying to maintain them. Whatever government increases they receive are being offset by cost increases-driving their disposable income down and them further into poverty. They are the saddest of all because they are totally reliant on government benefits and always will be.

The most innovative feature of the anti-poverty strategy is the establishment of Canada's first official poverty line by giving us the "market basket measure" or the cost of items including clothing, footwear, transportation, nutritious food, and appropriate shelter. The basket is adjusted to meet family size and the cost-of-living in 50 regions across the country. The individual or family who can't afford the contents of that basket in their community is considered to be living in poverty.

According to Employment and Social Development Canada, the poverty line for a family of four in Newfoundland and Labrador in urban (excluding St. John's) and semi-urban areas is $40, 318 and $20,159 for a single person. These are 2015 figures. The emailed statement further says 63, 000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians were living in poverty that same year.

The provincial Department of Children, Seniors and Social Development says 71,240 of us, including 19,230 children under 18 were considered "low income" that year, as were 7,160 seniors. The "low-income" threshold, the department email read, for a family of four in Carbonear is $36, 705. As a caution, the figures used for "low income" are probably based on Statistics Canada figures and don't necessarily measure poverty, but reflect those who earned half the national average. And that's why that market basket measure is so important. It gives us our official poverty line, something we haven't had in the past.

By any measure, it means the 33,005 people receiving income support in July of this year are deeply impoverished. Of this number, 7,672 are children under 18. According to an email from the Department of Advanced Education, Skills and Labour, which is responsible for income support, if a family of four, two adults and two school-age children receives the Canada child benefit as well as the provincial benefit for children, then the total family income "may" be roughly $27, 780 a year. Single people, the majority who get income support, "may" receive $11, 724 yearly. Data is not available for the number of disabled clients.

So the strategy will entail the official poverty line, reduction targets and a National Advisory Council on Poverty to advise Duclos's department and report publicly. It is expected to become law during the next sitting of Parliament. The council will also include those who have lived in poverty. But there is a glitch. As the cost-of-living rises, so too will the cost of goods and services in that basket. What if this government or successive governments don't meet the targets? Will it be the type of legislation governments ignore until it finally fades into obscurity? Only time will tell.

And what of the role of the council? Harriett McLachlan, the deputy-director of CWP, wonders in an Aug. 21 press release if the advisory council will be independent from government, be able to make decisions, and receive enough funding-all excellent queries from a person who apparently wonders if accountability means the lives of the underprivileged will be improved by this proposed legislation.

You cannot argue that it is incomprehensive. It even looks at whether we have "resilience" or enough financial assets and "social supports" to cope with setbacks without sinking below the poverty line. Jennifer Robson, an associate professor of political management at Carleton University, wrote in a MacLean's magazine opinion piece that we do not. "One-third of adult Canadians would run out of savings in less than a month", she has said. That's scary. Anything that can improve on it is welcome. Putting more money in the pockets of low-wage earners, through higher paycheques or increased housing subsidies are options.

The plan, though flawed, is adequate. True, it will help millions of Canadians, while seemingly leaving millions more behind. But if the strategy stays the course, their turn will come. And you can always build on improvements to existing programs to help yourself. To quote Robson "...by 2020, we should have some indicator of whether this approach is working." So, why not give it a chance.

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Pat Cullen is a journalist and community volunteer who lives in Carbonear. She can be reached at 596-1505 or cullen.pat1@gmail.com.

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