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April 21, 2011

Harper: the poor can wait

Reuel S. Amdur

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The report on poverty reduction by the House of Commons Human Resources, Skills and Social Development Committee took two and a half years to produce.

It held 47 meetings to gather input, held in locations across Canada, including two in First Nations communities.  The Committee heard from literally dozens of individuals and organizations and put forth 58 specific policy recommendations in its 299-page report.

Key is the first recommendation:

“The Committee recommends that the federal government immediately commit to a federal action plan to reduce poverty in Canada that would see, during its first phase, the implementation of the recommendations in this report. . . .

“The action plan should be reviewed every five years and should follow a three-step process: consultation, revision, and reporting to Parliament.”

“In 1989,” the report observes, “the House of Commons unanimously resolved to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.  However, no long-term action plan was developed to meet this goal and monitor progress.” 

In 2008, 9.1% of all children in Canada were living in poverty, if we use the Statistics Canada after-tax Low Income Cut-offs (LICO’s).  As a measure to lower this rate, the Committee called for a gradual increase in the Child Tax Benefit and Supplement to provide a minimum of $5,000 per child in five years. 

The Harper government introduced a Universal Child Care Benefit (UCCB) of $100 a month per child under six years old. 

The child care community and others concerned about the lack of affordable child care decried this program as totally off the mark.  For that reason, the Committee tread delicately, calling for an expert panel to examine “the impact of the UCCB on reducing poverty” and “supporting early learning and child care.”  Of course, any expert panel will easily conclude that $100 per month per child will help reduce poverty but will do virtually nothing to expand child care programs.  Then, the Committee recommended that the federal, provincial, and territorial governments work together to create a national public child care system. 

At the other end of the age scale, the Committee also recommended an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement as a way of reducing poverty among the elderly.  As well, it recommended certain modifications of the Canada Pension Plan.

Other recommendations relate to the disabled, Aboriginals, housing and homelessness, education and training, the working poor, Employment Insurance, and income support for unemployed persons between 55 and 64. 

In Ontario, provincial social assistance for people from 60 till 65 was available till Mike Harris withdrew that provision, leaving them to rely on the much lower Ontario Works rate run by local governments.

The persistence of poverty in a country as wealthy as Canada coexists with a growing gap between those at the top of the income scale and those at the bottom.  “Growth in after-tax income was observed in all income quintiles (a scale of five levels) between 1989 and 2007, but income rose by 7.6% among the lowest quintile and 30% among the highest quintile.  As a result of these different rates of growth, the average after-tax income of families in the highest income quintile was 5.4 times that of families in the lowest income quintile in 2007.” 

Well, can Canada afford the anti-poverty push? 

Part of the answer is to go after that top quintile.  Another part is to look at the success Canada has had in reducing poverty among the elderly.  In 1977, over 30% of the elderly were poor in LICO terms.  Because of the Old Age Pension and Guaranteed Supplement as well as the Canada Pension Plan, by 2008 it was 5%.  And the current aged poor are up closer to the LICO than other poverty groups in Canada.  If we can do it for the aged, we can do it for other categories as well.

Then there is the cost of not acting.  As Adam Spence, of the Ontario Association of Food Banks, told the Committee:

“Poverty has a staggering price tag.  As a function of increased remedial costs of health care and criminal justice, intergenerational costs, and lost productivity, the combined public and private cost of poverty in Canada ranges between $72.5 billion and $86.1 billion every year.  The combined loss of provincial and federal tax revenues is $25 billion.  Accordingly, investments in poverty reduction measures generate a significant rate of return.”

Well, what has been the Harper government’s response to this report? 

According to the office of Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, “The Government will take the Committee’s recommendations under advisement.”  There is undoubtedly a dusty shelf somewhere in her office to stick the report.

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