Election posturing looms over poverty issues

  • November 25, 2010
Rich poorTORONTO - With elections looming next year both provincially and nationally, political parties are jockeying to position themselves on poverty.

At Queen’s Park politicians made time to talk to the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition Nov. 18 and trade blows over who really cares about the poor. In Ottawa, opposition politicians ganged up on the Conservatives Nov. 17 to issue a 300-page report calling for a national poverty reduction strategy to support the half-dozen provincial plans.

Meanwhile reports and studies aimed at putting poverty on the political agenda are flying. Campaign 2000, a coalition of social work professionals, faith groups and community activists who lobby to reduce child poverty, was to issue its annual report card on child poverty Nov. 24 (after The Register’s press deadline). ISARC will officially release its year-long audit of life below the poverty line in Ontario Dec. 1. Food Banks Canada issued Hunger Count 2010 Nov. 17 showing 870,000 Canadians using food banks in the last year, 80,000 for the first time.

Even science is having a say, with a new study from the Centre for Research on Inner City Health at Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital concluding that the absence of a federal housing strategy is a threat to public health.

In Ottawa no one is under the illusion another 300-page report, this time from Parliament’s Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development, is going to result in an immediate about face on the part of a Conservative government which sees social spending as a provincial responsibility.

Just two months ago the government dismissed a bipartisan 300-page report from the Senate which recommended federal action on poverty.

That didn’t stop opposition politicians who form a majority on the committee from demanding the government create a national poverty reduction strategy, including a national housing strategy and increasing the Canada Child Tax Benefit by more than $1,500 to $5,000 per year.

Given the response to the Senate report In From the Margins, it’s unlikely the Harper Conservatives will get busy on the committee’s recommendations, said Citizens for Public Justice executive director Joe Gunn.

“A potential spring election opens up the possibility that under any new government, priorities could shift, and action on poverty be taken up more seriously,” Gunn said in a release.

Dr. Stephen Hwang of the Centre for Research on Inner City Health argues that inadequate and unaffordable housing is a threat to public health. His study found that 400,000 people across Canada are “vulnerably housed and at risk of becoming homeless.”

Among the health outcomes associated with bad housing are chronic conditions, including asthma (23 per cent of underhoused), hepatitis B and C (30 per cent) and arthritis (33 per cent).

Hwang claims he’s not prescribing any particular political cure.

“But we do expect the government to say this is our national strategy and these are the national standards,” he said. “At a minimum the government should acknowledge that we need a national housing strategy.”

Federal government action on poverty, particularly on housing, could make a world of difference to the various provincial plans, said Toronto Auxiliary Bishop Peter Hundt, who chairs the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario social affairs commission.

“Clearly, we need the federal government,” said Hundt. “If affordable housing is going to be a reality, the federal government has got to be involved.”

Meanwhile at the provincial level, NDP MPP Michael Prue is accusing the Liberal government of trying to hide weak results on its two-year-old plan to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent over five years.

After Laurel Broten, Liberal Minister of Children and Youth Services, dodged the question about just when her government would issue its annual progress report on poverty reduction, Prue accused the Liberals of trying to cover up its record.

“They’re going to release it alright, but they will do it over the Christmas holidays when it won’t be in the paper, when there will be no questions in the House,” Prue said.

With 90,000 low-income people off the tax rolls, 8,500 licensed child care spaces maintained after federal funding was cut, $18 million for school lunch programs and a provincial long-term affordable housing strategy on the way, the Liberals are committed to poverty reduction, Broten told ISARC.

Just when it seemed the provincial Conservatives would miss the semi-annual ISARC meeting, MPP Ted Arnott managed a last-second appearance to assure ISARC Conservatives care about poverty, too.

“I was troubled by the most recent food bank statistics. Clearly we need a better approach,” was as specific as Arnott could be about policy.

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