BC has much to learn from other provinces when it comes to poverty reduction.
Six provinces now have poverty reduction plans, although most are still fairly new, and therefore we don’t yet have data to tell us what kind of success they are meeting with, the exceptions being Quebec and Newfoundland. What their plans and results tell us is that poverty isn’t inevitable – that policy matters.
The example of Newfoundland is particularly instructive. There, the Conservative government of Danny Williams has made poverty reduction one of its overarching goals. Back in 2004, Newfoundland’s poverty rate was the second highest in Canada after BC’s. It is now 6.5 per cent, the third lowest in Canada. Their plan has led to concrete policy changes: welfare benefit rates have gone up (and were already higher than BC’s relative to the LICO) and they have been indexed (they go up every year according to the CPI); the minimum wage has been increased to $10; and the province followed Quebec and made dental care universal for children.
Ontario now also has a plan. Indeed, their plan is legislated, with a 25% reduction in 5 years. And notably, that legislation, the Ontario Poverty Reduction Act, was passed with unanimous all-party support, one week before BC’s provincial election last May, at the height of the recession. Like Newfoundland, they have a cross-ministerial secretariat, with a lead minister. And their lead minister must present annual progress reports. They have struck a welfare review panel, undertaking a comprehensive review of all the social assistance rates and rules. And they have gone the route of introducing an Ontario Child Tax Credit (like the federal one) worth $1,300 a year (another policy vehicle for increasing the incomes of low-income families, whether their income comes from welfare or paid employment).
More recently, New Brunswick has tabled their plan. The government there has fundamentally altered the tone of the debate, particularly about welfare. They too have legislated their plan in what they call the Economic and Social Inclusion Act. They too have all-party support. They have enacted some very large increases in welfare benefit rates, and indicated that this is only the start. And they have increased and indexed the minimum wage. And they too have a secretariat to coordinate plans.
The key common features of these plans are these:
- They have been advanced with all-party support
- They have specific targets and timelines, which in most cases are embedded in legislation.
- They are comprehensive (meaning they deal with income – both social assistance and other government income supports, as well as measures to boost labour market income; but they also address the social infrastructure on which low and modest income families depend, such as housing, education, child care, and community health care; and they have specific measures to address poverty among those populations where poverty is most acute, such as Aboriginal people, recent immigrants, people with disabilities and metal illness, and single parents).
- They have accountability mechanisms, such as public consultations, funding for independent monitoring groups, and obligations to report annually on progress. A key need is for timeline benchmarks that are frequent enough that a government can be held accountable within the life of each mandate.
- There is a cross-ministry secretariat to coordinate and integrate plans, and to ensure that policies do not act at cross-purposes.
(The preceding was part of my recent presentation to the BC Legislature’s Standing Committee on Children and Youth. For the full presentation, click here
And to join the call for a BC poverty reduction plan, click here