We need to act to end poverty and social exclusion

By  Greg deGroot-Maggetti, Catholic Register Special
  • April 16, 2007
What could we accomplish if Canada made a real effort to significantly reduce poverty in our country? Societies can reduce the rate of poverty and the depth of poverty. The key rests in the political commitment to develop an integrated and comprehensive action plan to combat poverty.
In 1989 the House of Commons unanimously endorsed a resolution to strive to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. But that statement of good intention was never followed by a national action plan to reach the goal. As a result, child and family poverty rates are higher today than in 1989.

Things could be changing. Hope for change lies in the emergence of public action plans to eradicate poverty and social exclusion. Coming first in response to the disastrous impact of structural adjustment programs in poor countries, the move to develop national poverty-reduction strategies has also occurred in rich countries. It reflects the growing awareness that economic prosperity cannot assure an equitable distribution of income and wealth unless it is integrated with a plan to end poverty and social exclusion.

In 2000, the European Union agreed that each member country should implement an action plan to fight poverty and social exclusion. In 2004, the Quebec national assembly unanimously passed legislation to do so. The government of Newfoundland introduced its own action plan to reduce poverty in 2006. The Quebec and Newfoundland official action plans both spell out their intent not only to improve the lives of people living in poverty, but also to prevent and reduce poverty.

Effective action plans to combat poverty and social inclusion share some common elements. They are based on substantive consultation with those most directly affected by poverty and social exclusion as well as those agencies and community organizations working to combat poverty. They take a comprehensive approach that includes integrated action across all government ministries and between different levels of government, as well as social partners. They include targets and timelines.

Ireland’s plan to reduce what it calls consistent poverty — a measure of deprivation — to below two per cent by 2007. Between 1994 and 2001, Ireland cut consistent poverty from 15.4 per cent to 5.1 per cent. Consistent poverty reflects households with less than 60 per cent of median income that are also “deprived of certain items that Irish people consider are necessary to ensure a basic standard of living.”

In the United Kingdom, the Labour government set an ambitious target of eliminating child poverty within 20 years. It set out interim targets and an action plan. It also chose a set of indicators to measure progress. Its key indicator was the number of children living in families with less than 60 per cent of median income. The government’s first benchmark was to reduce by 25 per cent the number of children living in poverty between 1998-99 and 2004-05. During that time, the number of children living in poverty fell by 23 per cent. Although that was short of the government’s benchmark, it is still a substantial reduction.

Quebec’s law to eradicate poverty was the direct result of citizen action. The Collective for a Quebec without Poverty spearheaded a multi-year effort to craft a law to eradicate poverty. The process involved extensive participation among citizens and community groups across Quebec, particularly those most affected by poverty. Their efforts bore fruit in a provincial law that received unanimous consent.

When the Liberal government of Jean Charest took power, public pressure to abide by the law forced it to create an action plan with some substance. The focus was on refundable tax credits, including major improvements to child benefits, as well as a refundable work income supplement. The law also called for the creation of an independent body, which the government has established, to monitor and evaluate the results of government action plans, to determine indicators to track success and to propose recommendations for further action.
The impetus for poverty reduction in Newfoundland came from a Conservative Party campaign commitment to make the province’s poverty rate the lowest in Canada. The Danny Williams government began to make good on that pledge through a province-wide consultation to draft an action plan. The government also created an interdepartmental working group to co-ordinate poverty reduction efforts.

The result is a plan that includes raising income-assistance rates and indexing them to the cost of living, improving the province’s pharmacare program, and increasing education funding with the explicit aim of eliminating school fees.

(Greg deGroot-Maggetti is a socio-economic policy analyst with Citizens for Public Justice. This article is reprinted from The Catalyst, a CPJ newsletter.)

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.