It feels counter-intuitive, but very, very real. Despite a global recession and a federal government seemingly blind to social exclusion, momentum is building for action on poverty in Canada.
It began in Quebec. In 2002, following three years of grassroots mobilization and a citizen-led initiative to draft anti-poverty legislation, the Government of Quebec passed an Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion. The bill created a strategy that aims to make Quebec “one of the industrialized nations having the least number of persons living in poverty” by 2013.
With a budget of $2.5 billion over five years, the plan seeks to improve access to Quebec’s public pharmacare program, provide funding to build new affordable housing, and create rent supplements and adapt housing for people with disabilities.
In its 2005 Speech from the Throne, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador announced its intent to transform Newfoundland and Labrador from the province with the most poverty to the province with the least poverty within ten years. A year later, following several months of consultations, Reducing Poverty: An Action Plan for Newfoundland and Labrador was announced.
The plan focuses on groups disproportionately impacted by poverty – families led by single mothers, single people, people aged 55-64, persons with disabilities, and Aboriginal peoples – and includes coordination of services, a strengthened social safety net, improved earned incomes, and increased emphasis on early childhood education.
By 2007, those living on social assistance in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador had already seen some improvements. According to the National Council of Welfare, “in the case of the lone parent with a pre-school age child living in Quebec, welfare income for 2007 reached 100 per cent of the Market Basket Measure (MBM), a poverty line measure that takes into account the cost of meeting basic needs in different parts of Canada. In the case of the lone parent with a pre-schooler in Newfoundland and Labrador, welfare income slightly surpassed the MBM, at 103 percent.” These figures are noteworthy when set against the findings in provinces without poverty reduction strategies, where the same demographic has a welfare income in the range of 65% (Alberta) to 90% (Saskatchewan) of MBM.
Strong community mobilization around poverty alleviation continued throughout 2007 and 2008. Then the bottom fell out of the economy. It appeared as though diminishing public resources would cause political leaders to retrench and leave those living in poverty to fend for themselves. In some cases they did. But not always.
In December 2008 the Government of Ontario introduced Breaking the Cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy with the goal of “reducing the number of children living in poverty by 25 per cent over 5 years.” Much of what the strategy contains can be traced to widespread citizen mobilization. Though limited primarily to addressing child poverty, the strategy is widely applauded as a positive first step. And the Ontario Liberals have committed to taking it further.
On February 25, they introduced legislation that would enshrine in law a commimtment to action on poverty. Encouraged by progress to date, civil society organizations in Ontario are now looking for a financial commitment to poverty reduction in the provincial budget on March 26.
There was also movement towards provincial poverty reduction strategies in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.
As a result of unanimous passage of Bill 94 late in 2007, the Government of Nova Scotia established the Poverty Reduction Strategy Working Group. This working group, with representation from several government ministries and a range of civil society participants, produced a series of recommendations on poverty reduction in the province based on discussion over a six month period. At the core of these recommendations, presented in June 2008 and currently under considertion, is that “The provincial government must adopt and invest in a Poverty Reduction Strategy [that is] ... inclusive, far-reaching, integrated and entrenched in legislation.”
In New Brunswick, the government launched the Public engagement initiative: Developing a poverty reduction plan. This initiative, which began with dialogue sessions in January, has the expressed intent of going beyond consultation to include actors in civil society in the decision-making process around the policies and programs required to address poverty in New Brunswick.
Strategies are expected in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick by the fall of 2009. And so it goes.
In Manitoba, the provincial NDP government thwarted efforts by Liberal MLA Jon Gerrard towards anti-poverty legislation. Undeterred, Gerrard reintroduced his private member’s bill for a “Social Inclusion and Anti-Poverty Act” on November 28, 2008.
In PEI, a multi-sector Poverty Reduction Network counts the provincial government among its members. The network has been meeting since January 2008 to collectively consider strategies for provincial government action on poverty.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-British Columbia released A Poverty Reduction Plan for BC in December 2008. Recommendations include income supports, affordable housing, early childhood education, and targeted measures for those populations most vulnerable to poverty. In February, the CCPA was among 200 BC organizations that called for a legislated BC poverty reduction plan.
Community groups and social justice organizations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, such as Campaign 2000, Public Interest Alberta, and the Saskatoon Health Region, are also calling for provincial poverty reduction strategies.
In the decade that has passed since community organizers began mobilizing in Quebec, the progress towards provincial action on poverty has been encouraging – and so have the early results.
So what is the source of this tremendous momentum? Perhaps it is the startling reality that more and more Canadians see themselves sitting on the edge and potentially slipping into poverty themselves. Or maybe it is an increased understanding that poverty costs Canadians billions of dollars – and that that money could be better spent addressing the issue head-on. Maybe. But the real push for action has come, and will continue to come, from concerned citizens that believe that poverty can and must be addressed, and that the government has a central role to play.
The energy that has developed within the anti-poverty community has given advocates a hopeful sense the possible. The momentum for social change has become self-perpetuating. Government action in those provinces that do not yet have poverty reduction strategies is not only anticipated, it is expected. So too is action on the part of the federal government.
Momentum is building. And, it is unlikely to stop until we’ve achieved a poverty-free Canada.