What B.C. can learn from Ottawa’s poverty reduction strategy

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Originally published in The Province

The federal government launched Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy in Vancouver a week ago. As I watched Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos make the announcement, I thought about what the B.C. government officials could learn as they develop the first poverty strategy for B.C. Being the last province to develop a plan gives us an opportunity to learn from the strengths and challenges of other strategies.

What is new in the federal strategy is a commitment to measure poverty, a significant first step in reaching the aim of a Canada without poverty. Ottawa now defines the Market Basket Measure as the first official poverty line and has set a target of reducing poverty by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030. The MBM is a good choice for the poverty line as it tracks the cost of living, including housing, food, transportation, clothing and other basic needs, as well as capturing regional differences.

Ottawa has also identified multiple good indicators to track, including depth of poverty, food and housing insecurity and inequality measures. Unfortunately, the federal government has not set targets in these indicators or defined the actions needed to create beneficial outcomes in each case. As Duclos says in his foreword, “To be effective, Canada’s poverty reduction strategy must have transparent indicators, clear targets and tangible actions.” We have indicators and targets but no “tangible actions.”

Ottawa’s strategy simply amounts to adding a target and timeline to a compilation of past actions and commitments.

There are so many missed opportunities here. While the feds have included initiatives from many ministries, they have not built in structural changes to ensure a whole-of-government approach. One of the strengths of Quebec’s poverty reduction plan is the legislated “impact clause,” which requires all government action to be assessed in terms of its direct impact on the incomes of those living in poverty. As Quebec’s government states in its original plan, this co-ordinated approach “is an example of the will to move beyond a silo approach toward a restructuring of public services that puts citizens first.”

Ottawa could have built in a similar “poverty/equity lens.” The good news is that there is still time for B.C. to build it into its plan.

The other missing foundation is a meaningful commitment to human rights. We had hoped, and expect from B.C., that the issues would be identified as rights-based — a right to housing or food, for example. This is important, not only because it centres the experiences of people in poverty (as the one paragraph in the federal plan that mentions human rights recognizes) but also because it creates legal protections against policies that harm low-income people.

We are missing a strong leadership role from the federal level here. Low incomes, whether from income supports or low wages, are keeping people in poverty. While income assistance programs and minimum wages are within provincial and territorial jurisdiction, Ottawa could support the improvement of these measures. For instance, the Canada Social Transfer could be tied to adequate standards — as it was historically — so that federal funding to provincial and territorial governments would only happen if income supports were adequate and accessible.

Defining federal standards for transfers would mean that B.C. would no longer be able to maintain the basic welfare rate at $710 a month — only 43 per cent of the poverty line. Income assistance rates across Canada would increase with federal leadership, bringing many people out of the depths of poverty.

All of these points and more are contained in the ABC Plan, the poverty reduction plan we expect the B.C. government to deliver in February. We anticipate more from the provincial government than the federal government delivered last week.

Trish Garner is the community organizer of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, a broad-based network of more than 400 organizations calling for an accountable, bold and comprehensive poverty reduction plan for B.C.