Tackling poverty in Canada

  • November 16, 2007
{mosimage}Remember 1989, when all politicians in the House of Commons voted in favour of “eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000”? Surely the politicians would rather forget, because today — seven years after that deadline — poverty is alive and well among Canadian children.

Perhaps the politicians thought no one would hold them to account for this promise. After all, it was a grand notion, but suitably vague. There were no price tags attached, no legislation, no concrete measures. It was, at least for the cynical among them, a way of saying something that felt good but meant nothing. Fortunately, the work of Campaign 2000, a coalition of anti-poverty groups, continues to remind them and us about how truly broken this promise is.

When Jesus Christ said the poor will always be with us, He wasn’t letting us off the hook. He also said that whatsoever you do to the least among you, you do to Him. And there are plenty of “the least” among us: in Canada, 242,000 seniors and 778,000 children live in poverty. For single mothers, the poverty rate is 33 per cent.

Yes, it is true, poverty has declined in the last decade, thanks largely to a healthy economy and some government measures, such as the National Child Benefit. However, we seem to have lost interest in that battle, even though it is far from finished.

In recent years, it hasn’t been fashionable in federal political circles to be seen helping the poor directly. Rather, the emphasis has been on general tax cuts, non-refundable tax credits and getting the government “off the backs” of taxpayers. The result has been one large missed opportunity to do something truly nation-building.

That’s why it was a relief to hear Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion nail his party’s colours to the mast of fighting poverty. In a Nov. 9 speech to the Learning Enrichment Foundation, he laid out a plan to reduce the number of Canadians living below the poverty line by 30 per cent and the number of children below the poverty line by 50 per cent. It contained concrete measures, such as increasing federal income support to help poor families obtain healthy food and decent housing. The Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors would be increased. Non-refundable tax credits would become refundable so even the poorest Canadians would be eligible for them.

Is this a perfect plan, and will it eliminate poverty? No and no. But it will go a good deal further than anything any other party is currently proposing. While the Conservative government crows that its recent tax measures will knock 385,000 people off the income tax rolls, most of those people are likely paying taxes of only $5 or $10.

The reality of minority government in Ottawa offers a rare opportunity for the parties to set aside political advantage for once to come together for this battle. Dion offers a potential path for this effort; will the others respond in kind?

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