Have poverty issues been forgotten in Ottawa?
In the lead-up to the release of the House of Common’s Federal Poverty Reduction Plan report in November 2010, there was much hope and optimism that the federal government would begin to take a leadership role in reducing poverty in Canada. Following the government’s official response to the report, however, it became apparent that this wouldn’t be the case. Federal involvement in shaping a national strategy to address poverty did not seem to be a priority.
Yet a review of what’s known as the Hansard – the official record of the statements and debates made by MPs in the House of Commons – shows that discussions about poverty have not been silenced on Parliament Hill.
A quick search for the number of times the word “poverty” has been used in recent parliamentary proceedings yields some interesting results. In the 295 days the House sat in the 39th parliament (April 2006 – June 2008), it was mentioned in 612 comments, or an average of 2.07 times per day. In the 294 sitting days of the 40th parliament (November 2008 – March 2011), “poverty” appeared in 531 statements for an average of 1.81 times per day. In the 68 sitting days thus far in the 41st parliament (June 2011 – current), it’s appeared 252 times, an average of a whopping 5.19 times a day.
Talk, of course, does not equal action. As mentioned above, the federal government has resisted taking on a leadership role to deal with poverty. It has failed to implement a national poverty reduction strategy, instead offloading this role exclusively onto the domains of the provincial and territorial governments (where, thankfully, six of Canada’s thirteen provincial/territorial governments have seen the importance and implemented their own strategies, and four more are in the process). Rather than consider how the federal government could coordinate and support these efforts (i.e. by implementing nation-wide standards, coordinating services, providing funding, etc.), Ottawa has taken the opposite approach, downplaying its ability to play an active role in helping Canadians in need.
Meanwhile, depending on how you define and measure it, anywhere from as few as 4% to as many as 13% of Canadians live in poverty. Even if we were to go with the lowest rate possible (a somewhat suspect figure as it only takes into account a very narrow, arguably unrealistic, measure of absolute material poverty and says nothing about social depravation), it would still mean that well over 1 million Canadians live in poverty. In a highly-developed nation like ours, this should be cause for concern.
In all fairness, the federal government hasn’t been inert on poverty issues. Over the past several decades, it has introduced and made improvements to vital income security programs for seniors such as Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement. Recently, modest increases have been made to the National Child Benefit Supplement and the Canada Child Tax Benefit for low and middle-income families. And major investments have recently been made in a pilot study to house and provide support to people living with mental illnesses. But this fragmented, piecemeal approach is woefully inadequate. People are continuing to live in material need and social exclusion.
The federal government, with its particular policymaking, legislative, taxation and redistributive powers, has an especially critical role in dealing with poverty in Canada. The time for simply talking is over. What next steps are needed to move the anti-poverty agenda forward at the federal level? What are the parties’ priorities for action? How can we work together to eliminate poverty?
On February 14, CPJ and the Dignity for All campaign for a poverty-free Canada are hosting an event in Ottawa entitled, “What’s Next: How do we Address Poverty in Canada?” to answer some of these questions. The event will feature a panel discussion and Q & A session with MPs, social policy & advocacy groups, and members of the public, including those living in poverty. Our aim for the event is to promote non-partisan dialogue and to identify concrete and achievable goals for reducing poverty in Canada.
As we mentioned in our recent letter to the members of the House of Commons’ Human Resources Committee, poverty is an injustice that demands federal action. We need all voices at the table regardless of party affiliation. There are varied approaches to understanding and dealing with poverty. It’s too important of an issue to not address together.
All MPs and Senators have been invited. You can help make event a success and encourage an active federal role in reducing poverty by contacting your MP and urging them to join the conversation on February 14th in Ottawa.
[“What’s Next: How do we Address Poverty in Canada?" is taking place on Tuesday, February 14th from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Government Conference Centre, 2 Rideau St., Ottawa. Members of the public are welcome. If you’d like to attend, Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than February 8.]