Targets sought for poverty reduction

By 
  • February 4, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - Politics and poverty are about to find themselves on the same stage in Ontario and nationally.

“The issue is back on the table,” said Michael Polyani, KAIROS’ Canadian social development expert.

Polyani was one of 250 anti-poverty activists and church representatives who turned up for a strategy session in Toronto Nov. 28 to plan on pushing the Ontario Liberal government to set ambitious targets and timetables for poverty reduction.

Targets, timetables and measurable success have become the core demands of groups ranging from social workers to labour unions and church coalitions. The 25 in 5 Network’s demand is for a 25-per-cent reduction in overall poverty rates over the next five years. More than 100 such groups have joined together in the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction. About 20 per cent of participants in the network are faith-based, including the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Religious Conference, the Redemptorist Fathers and the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.

Polyani believes clear goals and the prospect of verifiable measures of success are attracting new blood to the anti-poverty movement.

“That’s something that’s really different than 10 or 15 years ago,” Polyani said.

“We haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Kingston’s Fr. Lloyd Cummings, who has been active on poverty issues for more than a generation.

Phil Nazar of the Canadian Religious Conference thinks there’s more to it than just the mantra of targets, timetables and measures.

“There’s been more energy, interest and action the past few years,” he said. “Something has galvanized in the province in the past six months.”

The poverty activists held their meeting one week before the Ontario cabinet was scheduled to spend a day shaping its own poverty agenda. Minister of Children and Youth Services Deb Matthews has been charged with consulting with groups across the province before defining the provincial government’s poverty reduction plans.

There’s no reason to accept a plan which is less ambitious than those already undertaken in Quebec and Newfoundland, said the Anglican diocese of Toronto’s Murray MacAdam. Quebec passed legislation in 2002 and fleshed it out with a program in 2004 which commits the province to reduce poverty to the equivalent of the lowest poverty rates in the industrialized world by 2012. Newfoundland committed to have the lowest poverty level of any Canadian province in 10 years.

While the Liberals are committed to bringing in a timetable for poverty reduction, Ontario’s opposition Conservatives aren’t quite ready to commit. Tory Community and Social Service critic Sylvia Jones said it was too early for her party to commit to the 25 in 5 Network’s minimum conditions.

“I don’t think it’s ever a bad thing to have government policies where there are timelines. At this point, three weeks into the critic role, I’m not prepared to state what ours are,” the Dufferin-Caledon MPP told The Catholic Register.

Meanwhile, on the federal front, NDP leader Jack Layton revealed a poverty reduction strategy in a letter to the Canadian Council of Churches.

“Fighting poverty is directly related to our commitment to creating opportunities for people and communities to prosper,” Layton wrote in a Jan. 24 letter.

While Layton proposes measures that many church and anti-poverty activists have called for, including raising the child tax benefit, starting a national housing program and more programs aimed at helping immigrants settle into good jobs, he was criticized for failing to come up with a timetable or to set a target for poverty reduction.

“The NDP provincially and federally is making a big mistake in downplaying the poverty reduction strategy,” said MacAdam.

The federal Liberals have promised to cut poverty rates by 50 per cent over the next 30 years if elected.

Social policy critic for the NDP Tony Martin said his party would eventually reveal timetables and goals to go along with its policy proposals.

“Actually, timetables and measures often become a problem in themselves, and we don’t get to the real immediacy of this issue,” he said.

The Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops has fully embraced the concept of setting a goal, naming a timeframe and measuring success, said general secretary Alphonse Ainsworth. Ainsworth was particularly impressed by poverty reduction strategies with timetables and goals in England and Ireland.

“If it works there, why doesn’t it work here?” he asked.            

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