Poverty needs to be a national priority

  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}Asking the federal government to develop a poverty reduction plan is just asking them to do their job, according to Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn.

Gunn’s ecumenical social justice organization, along with a dozen other church, union and social action organizations have launched Dignity For All: The Campaign for a Poverty-Free Canada . The campaign aims to get the public and all federal political parties talking about a realistic plan for reducing Canada’s 10.8 per cent poverty rate.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops Justice and Peace Commission chairman Archbishop Brendan O’Brien plans to look at CCCB participation in Dignity For All when the Justice and Peace Commission meets at the end of June. All governments bear some responsibility for alleviating poverty, he said.

“Anything at any level of governnent that people can do to reduce poverty would be right,” said the archbishop of Kingston.

The Dignity For All coalition wants a federal poverty plan to be part of the election platforms of the major federal parties before Nov. 24, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 unanimous House of Commons resolution to end child poverty by the year 2000. They plan to release the details of their own plan Oct. 17, the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development Diane Finley said her government is already working on reducing poverty. In an email to The Catholic Register her office pointed out Conservative changes to the tax code had “helped 950,000 low-income Canadians off the tax rolls.”

The Conservatives also lay claim to $550 million a year in aid to working poor people through the Working Income Tax Benefit, $1.9 billion over five years committed to programs for the homeless and the Child Tax Benefit of up to $2,000 for each child under the age of 18.

But Dignity For All is asking for more than ad hoc budget and tax measures, said Gunn. They want the federal equivalent of the kinds of poverty reduction plans now in place in Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Manitoba — legislation that commits the government to specific poverty reduction targets over a set period of time and including an agreed measure of poverty.

“If you talk to people responsible for the provincial plans, they say ‘Our plan won’t work unless we have the ear of the federal government,’ ” Gunn said.

To avoid another empty all-party resolution like the 1989 child poverty vote, the Dignity For All campaign needs to get the Canadian public fired up about the issue, said Liberal housing and infrastructure critic Gerard Kennedy.

“For any national objectives to be set the public has to be on board,” Kennedy told The Catholic Register.

Ottawa will only respond once they see there are political consequences for ignoring public outrage, he said.

“There is a vacuum in Ottawa of medium-term vision,” he said.

The Liberals included a commitment to reduce all poverty by 30 per cent over five years and child poverty by 50 per cent in the same time-frame in their 2008 election platform.

A new Liberal platform is expected this month.

The biggest challenge for Dignity For All won’t be convincing politicians. The tough part will be convincing a majority of Canadians, Kennedy said.

“Seventy-five per cent of Canadians have not known poverty in their lifetime,” he said. “And that’s the main goal — to get Canadians to care about it the way they care about getting their kids educated, the way they care about how seniors are treated.”

A realistic plan to reduce poverty isn’t pie in the sky, said Campaign 2000 national co-ordinator Laurel Rothman.

“In income security the feds have taken a lead, for example, on seniors and made Canada proud,” she said.

Where poverty among elderly Canadians topped 30 per cent in the early 1970s, today it’s around five per cent, largely because of federal old age security payments and federal spending to help build seniors’ housing.

Campaign 2000 has spent more than 15 years trying to get Ottawa to live up to its 1989 resolution. If the federal government makes poverty a priority things will happen, said Rothman.

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