Deb Matthews, Minister of Children and Youth Services and Chair of the Ontario Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction, said it “was a time to listen” in addressing the Spring Conference of the Social Planning Network of Ontarioon May 8 in Ottawa. This roundtable had been arranged prior to the Minister’s announcement of her community consultations on poverty reduction, which commenced on May 5.
SPNO members (staff and volunteers of 15 local social planning councils across the province) were joined by more than 30 representatives of provincial partners and local groups working on poverty reduction out of a community or sectoral base. Participants included representation from communities and sectors reflecting multiple perspectives on poverty reduction including health, housing, social services, community legal services, child and family poverty, disability, faith, Aboriginal, ethno-racial equity, labour and workers’ rights. Several advocates from the low income community in Ottawa also attended and participated.
The meeting opened with statements by Deputy Chief Glen Hare of the Union of Ontario Indians and Patti McDonald of the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres presenting the particular conditions producing disproportionately high and severe levels of poverty among First Nations peoples on reserve and Aboriginal people in urban communities.
In her opening statement, Minister Matthews explained what the Government was trying to accomplish in fulfilling Premier McGuinty‘s commitment to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy for Ontario. The Minister expressed “the hope that all people in Ontario feel they have something to contribute to this process… We need ideas that I can translate into government policy.”
The SPNO and its partners had worked the preceding day (May 7) reviewing the main elements of a policy framework on poverty reduction developed by the SPNO, tested in communities across Ontario and consistent with the 25 in 5 Declaration launched at the large open meetingat Queen’s Park in Toronto on April 14. An overview of the policy framework was presented by Marvyn Novick, SPNO Consultant, summarizing three priorities of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, which would upgrade living conditions for adults, parents and children in Ontario:
- Sustaining employment — any parent or adult working full-year, full-time should have a decent standard of living above poverty.
- Livable incomes — support for a life of dignity and adequacy out of poverty for people in partial employment or unavailable for work due to disability or temporary difficulties.
- Essential social resources — the need for affordable housing, early learning and childcare, dental, health and vision coverage for all Ontarians as essential for reducing poverty and promoting inclusion.
Marvyn Novick also reported that the group had discussed and agreed in its meeting that, although child and family poverty issues are important and must be addressed to break the cycle of poverty, a comprehensive poverty strategy must also include structural changes that would increase the incomes and the availability and quality of employment and housing for individuals as well as parents with children.
Lead policy initiatives in each of the three priority areas were presented for discussion by:
- Deena Ladd of the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto (sustaining employment)
- Cindy Wilkey of the Income Security Advocacy Centreand John Stapleton of the Metcalf Foundation (livable incomes)
- Michael Shapcott of The Wellesley Instituteand Greg deGroot-Maggetti (essential social resources).
The Minister engaged in discussion on the issues commenting in particular on what she had learned from her previous community visits and discussions with low income people. She recounted a story of an older woman on ODSP who was limited in her ability to take a part-time work opportunity because of how it would affect her rent subsidy, thus pointing to the problem of the benefit reduction schedules currently in place (i.e. “the system bit this person in the butt”).
The Minister said that the Government would have “to get its own house in order” in terms of better understanding what support it is already providing across various ministries, develop a strategy that responds to the needs of individuals, and better coordinate its programs to reduce poverty.
The Minister also indicated that, in her talks with parents living on low incomes, she wants to know whether what is happening on the ground with resepct to the Ontario Child Benefit is consistent with what she is being told at higher levels.
Grace-Edward Galabuzi of the Colour of Poverty cautioned against the stigma of labelling people “poor.” Given the high co-relation between poverty and racialized communities in Ontario, this was becoming an increasingly “racialized stigma”. The Minister sought advice on how to identify parts of the population for assistance without stigmatizing people in the process.
Marvyn Novick presented the SPNO’s perspective on poverty indicators that “there must be a recognized benchmark indicator for an Ontario poverty reduction strategy to ensure transparency and accountability.” Two well-established indicators, the Low Income Cut-Off (LICO), used in Canada for the last 40 years, and the Low Income Measure (LIM), used by the UK and the European Union as an official poverty measure are the strongest candidates for consideration. Other indicators, such as the Deprivation Index or Market Basket Measure, could be developed to complement these basic income measures but they would not be helpful in terms of knowing how successful a poverty reduction strategy is working in comparison with previous periods (LICO) or other countries (LIM).
This remains an area for debate as the Minister expressed an interest in making sure that there be improvement among those in the furthest depths of poverty.
Annette Reszcynski of the Social Planning Council of Sudbury asked about the steps that would be taken to ensure that there would be ongoing community engagement on the poverty reduction strategy including reviewing progress with implementation along the way.
Minister Matthews could not be specific on the plans right now but indicated her sincere commitment to making change that will endure future governments. Many people have yet to be convinced that poverty should be a political priority. But more are seeing that it is the right thing to do both morally and economically. She is seeking the help of the community in developing a poverty reduction strategy that will win political support.
Linda Terry, SPNO Vice-Chair and Executive Director of the Social Planning Council of Cambridge & North Dumfries, thanked Minister Matthews for her participation in the roundtable discussion and indicated that the SPNO and its partners will be continuing to take the policy framework forward for discussion with MPPs during this consultation period.