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And then there were two

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And then there were two: Alberta voters promised a provincial poverty reduction plan, leaving only BC and Saskatchewan without one now.
(Later featured in The Province: “BC needs a provincewide plan for poverty”)

Two weeks before Alberta’s provincial election, Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford announced a Plan for Poverty Reduction. Surprising many, Alberta has re-elected the PC party, and consequently, Alberta will now see a plan in place, centered around a bold commitment to eliminate child poverty in five years. This leaves only British Columbia and Saskatchewan without a provincial plan to tackle poverty (despite the fact that BC has the highest poverty rate in Canada).

The day after Redford’s announcement, the BC government launched its “community poverty-reduction strategies.” In collaboration with the Union of BC Municipalities, they have selected seven communities around the province to pilot these local plans. This approach has some good features but does nothing to address the systemic causes of poverty and will make little difference to the over 500,000 British Columbians struggling to get by.

If the government took the positive features of the community plans – targets and timelines, cross-ministerial involvement, and community engagement – and included them in a scaled-up poverty reduction plan at the provincial level, it would have a real impact on those living in poverty.

As Tina Cousins of the Prince George District Teacher’s Association, an organization within one of the selected communities, states, “a comprehensive approach is needed, not only to boost the income of adults living in poverty, but also to build the social infrastructure, public services, and assets that are vital to providing a path out of poverty.”

The good news is that, after years of prodding, the provincial government has finally recognized the value of creating action plans that address the needs of those living in poverty. This is the first time the government has taken a strategic and integrated approach to this issue. Previously, they have introduced initiatives in isolation and, as both the BC Auditor General and BC’s Representative for Children and Youth have said, a laundry list of actions does not constitute a much-needed plan.

These community plans will also feature “measurable targets,” an important element of any effective approach. Without targets and timelines, real sustained progress remains elusive. Without them, we don’t know if the government’s actions are actually making a difference in people’s lives. The government has never previously measured the success of its initiatives in relation to poverty reduction.

The plans will be developed over the summer with community involvement from local governments, community organizations, local businesses and, most importantly, from people living in poverty. This is key to developing a comprehensive strategy that addresses the needs of low-income families and individuals. Effective community engagement will reveal the over-representation within poverty of certain groups, such as Aboriginal people, people with disabilities, recent immigrants and refugees, lone-mother households and single senior women.

Another central feature to any effective strategy is having a lead minister and the government has appointed Mary McNeil, Minister of Children and Family Development, to be responsible for this initiative. However, they also recognize the importance of cross-ministerial involvement as representatives from other ministries connected to poverty were present at the launch of the community plans in Prince George.

Notwithstanding these positive elements of the community plans, this new initiative is fundamentally lacking because there are no new policies, no new priorities and no new resources to address the crisis of poverty we are facing as a province. These community plans do not recognize that most of the problems and causes of poverty go beyond the community level. Mary McNeil has said that the government does not want “a plan that’s a compromise or watered down for one-size fits all” but there are “one-size fits all” measures that would make a significant difference to people throughout the province, such as building more social housing, raising welfare rates, and indexing both welfare rates and the minimum wage to inflation.

The government’s new approach also has a “families-first” focus, which, although important given that BC has had the highest rate of child poverty for the last eight years, neglects others affected by poverty. A third of single men and women below 65 years of age live in poverty, more than three times the rate for men and women in families (9.2 per cent). Nearly half of all single Aboriginal women and more than one in five single senior women live in poverty. A families-first approach excludes these vulnerable populations.

With the outcome of Alberta’s election, BC is now one of the last two provinces in Canada without a poverty reduction plan. Most other places in the country have a strategy or are in the process of developing one, and many are already seeing success. They are saving lives and money by tackling the issue of poverty head-on. It’s high time BC did too.

By Trish Garner, Organizer of the Coalition and Stephen Elliott-Buckley, a health policy researcher.