Submission to the Standing Committee on Social Policy with respect to
An Act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario
April 20, 2009
The Social Planning Network of Ontario (SPNO) is pleased to have this opportunity to present its views on Bill 152 to the Standing Committee on Social Policy of the Ontario Legislature.
The SPNO is made up of 20 local social planning and community development councils across the province. All are independent, community-based organizations dedicated to the social and economic well-being of their communities. Social planning and community development councils do social research, policy analysis, public education, advocacy and community development.
Historically, social planning and community development councils have been active on public policy and program issues relevant to the needs and interests of low income people and marginalized parts of the population. Early in 2008, SPNO joined the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction and assumed the primary role for 25 in 5 of organizing and supporting cross-community engagement for input into the Ontario Government’s poverty reduction strategy before its release in December 2008.
Since February 2008, the SPNO has worked with community leadership in more than 25 communities across Ontario to promote the 25 in 5 Declaration on Poverty Reduction and specific policies and programs required in a serious poverty reduction strategy for Ontario (see www.povertywatchontario.ca).
Support for 25 in 5 Recommendations
The SPNO wishes to express its clear support for the recommended amendments to Bill 152 presented in the submission of the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction. SPNO would like to reinforce some of the recommendations for amendment proposed by 25 in 5 and highlight some important arguments related to several of these recommendations. We also wish to make an additional suggestion with respect to a fundamental and worrisome assumption in the Preamble to Bill 152 that must be challenged.
(a) Targets established in the proposed Act
SPNO strongly agrees with the 25 in 5 submission with respect to the need for a clear commitment in Bill 152 to a poverty-free Ontario. We have a serious concern about the relative weakness of the Bill with respect to a target of 25% reduction in the number of children living in poverty in the province over a five-year period. Although an important first step that may be suitable for the Government’s current poverty reduction strategy as released last December, limiting all reference to targets in the proposed legislation to only child and family poverty over a five year period belies the very title of the Bill, An Act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario, not just child and family poverty in Ontario.
Therefore, we recommend that the second paragraph of the Preamble add the following commitment for this Government’s own poverty reduction initiative: “and a 50% reduction of Ontario children living in poverty within ten years.“
At a minimum, the commitment to a “poverty-free Ontario” should be stated in this framework legislation. The very first article of the Québec Government’s framework legislation passed in 2002 calls for planning and implementation of actions to “strive towards a poverty-free Québec” (appended). SPNO’s own preference would be for this Ontario Government to commit itself and future governments to a more explicit target of a 25% reduction of all poverty in five years, a 50% reduction by 2018 and eradication of all poverty in Ontario by 2020.
Notably, as early as 2002, the Quebec Government set a strong target and ten year timeline in its own anti-poverty law:
The national strategy is intended to progressively make Quebec, by 2013 one of the industrialized nations having the least number of persons living in poverty, according to recognized methods for making international comparisons.
(An Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion, Chapter 1, Article 4)
Similarly, the Progressive Conservative Government of Newfoundland and Labrador set a bold and comprehensive poverty reduction target in 2007. Although not entrenched in legislation, the resolution passed by the Legislative Assembly with Government support resolved:
That this hon. House express its support for the Poverty Reduction Strategy initiatives of the 2006 and 2007 budgets and the Strategy’s objective of transforming Newfoundland and Labrador over a ten-year period from the Province with the most poverty to the Province with the least poverty.
(Newfoundland Legislative Assembly, 2007)
(b) Addressing poverty among adults in Ontario
SPNO further supports the 25 in 5 recommendation for the proposed Act to make an explicit commitment to reducing poverty among adults as well as children and families in Ontario. Therefore, SPNO recommends the addition of a fourth paragraph to the Preamble as follows: “A continuing objective of the Government strategy is to reduce levels and depths of poverty for all adults across Ontario.“
Again, we note that the poverty reduction legislation in Quebec consistently refers to “persons” and “individuals” as well as “families” in its commitment to poverty reduction including specific reference to “persons” in three of its expressed goals for the national poverty reduction strategy.
The SPNO is particularly concerned by this omission in Bill 152 because of our outreach to communities across the province in the last fifteen months, where there was strong support for reducing child and family poverty but also serious concern that the Government’s poverty reduction strategy would not be complete nor comprehensive if it did not include commitments to low income individuals and couples without children. This was most clearly evident in the cross-community support for a $100 monthly Healthy Food Supplement for adults on social assistance as the first step in a path to income adequacy for the more than half a million adults on OW and ODSP in Ontario (see www.povertywatchontario.ca/put-food-in-the-budget). Regrettably, this measure did not find its way into the Government’s 2009 budget, but communities across the province will continue to press for its implementation.
Notably in Quebec, the latest report of the Advisory Committee to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion concludes that, although family incomes have improved:
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for singles and childless couples who are on social assistance. With the year-on-year increase in the cost of basic necessities and the partial indexation of benefits, these people have not seen their quality of life improve and remain in survival mode.
(Comité Consultatif de la Lutte Contre la Pauvreté et Exclusion Sociale, Prevention of Persistent Poverty, 2009, p. 21)
(c) Accountability and reporting
SPNO also supports the 25 in 5 Network’s recommendation for the creation of an independent body for review of implementation of the Government’s poverty reduction strategy, for reporting through the Minister to the Legislature, and for consultations with a wide cross-section of stakeholders in the review that the body undertakes.
Challenging Entrenchment of the Notion of “Intergenerational Poverty”
SPNO is very concerned about the third paragraph in the Preamble of Bill 152 stating:
The initial focus of the Government’s strategy is on breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty by improving opportunities for children, particularly through the education system.
SPNO recommends that this paragraph be amended as follows:
The initial focus of the Government’s strategy is on breaking cycles of poverty by improving economic, learning and developmental opportunities for children and families across Ontario.
This proposed amendment is important for the reasons following.
(a) Current language promotes notion of an underclass.
The Preamble to Bill 152 risks seeding the notion that poverty is the responsibility of people who are poor. References to “intergenerational poverty” evoke images of an underclass as described by the US writer Charles Murray as a “certain type of poor person defined not by his condition but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition.” (Rutherford, 2008)
The convenience of the “underclass” theory in which poverty becomes transmitted from generation to generation is that it absolves governments from taking the action necessary to address the fundamental structural economic and social factors that are the root causes of inequality and poverty in our society.
Making “breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty” the initial focus of the Government’s strategy and entrenching it in the Preamble to framework legislation on poverty reduction reinforces the notion of dependency, individual responsibility and blaming the victim for their living conditions. These are not acceptable assumptions for grounding the framework legislation on poverty reduction in Ontario.
(b) Lack of evidence
There is no evidence that intergenerational poverty is the predominant or primary source of poverty in Ontario and Canada. Intergenerational poverty suggests a low degree of income mobility from one generation to the next.
A recent report released by the Ontario Association of Food Banks (OAFB) cites Canadian research that shows this is not the case in Canada compared to the United States and even the United Kingdom. Summarizing the conclusions of research by Fortin and Lefebvre on the relationships between incomes of young adults and those of their fathers, OAFB reports that the studies:
have all shown fairly high rates of intergenerational income mobility – that is, a relatively small likelihood that the children of low-income Canadians will themselves experience low incomes when they grow up.
(Laurie, Cost of Poverty, 2008, p. 14)
It is important that the framework legislation for poverty reduction in Ontario not suggest that the primary or predominant source of poverty is passed from one generation to the next.
(c) Addressing major structural conditions that determine life opportunities
Given the preceding, we urge an amendment to the Preamble to Bill 152 that acknowledges the need for “breaking cycles of poverty” that lie in structural factors that deny access to adequate and decent living conditions for individuals and families in Ontario.
When 45% of Ontario children living in poverty are in families where at least one parent is working full-year, full-time, as Ontario CAMPAIGN 2000 reports, the problem is hardly an issue of cultural dependency or intergenerational poverty. Rather the barriers to escaping poverty for this shamefully high number of children and families lie in:
- inadequate income support programs;
- labour market conditions such as low wage levels and the lack of good jobs;
- inaccessibility to essential family supports such as affordable and quality childcare; and
- the cost of housing.
Again, the framework legislation in Quebec is instructive in this regard. The second goal of the national strategy to combat poverty is “to improve the economic and social situation of persons and families living in poverty and social exclusion.” Article 9 (appended) of the Quebec Act amplifies the aims of that goal, addressing income levels, labour market supports, access to essential health, educational and recreational services, adequate and nutritious food, and the availability of decent and affordable housing.
These are the factors that would more directly contend with breaking the cycles of poverty in Ontario as well, and, we believe, that the Preamble to Bill 152 should make room for this consideration via the recommended amendment that we are proposing.
(d) Situating the role of education appropriately
The Government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy expects a lot of Ontario’s education system with respect to poverty reduction and this is reinforced in the third paragraph of the Preamble to Bill 152. Some suggest that a contributing factor to intergenerational poverty is lack of school completion and conclude that reducing drop-out rates will lower poverty rates.
While the co-relation between educational achievement and higher income levels is undeniable, it is important not to assume that lack of school completion is an inherent characteristic of low income families. Duncan et al. concluded from their study of school completion and family incomes in the 1990s that:
These analyses suggest that economic conditions in early childhood have the biggest impact on achievement, especially among children in families with low incomes. Estimates from sibling models support the hypothesis that economic conditions in early childhood are important determinants of completed schooling.
(Duncan et al., April 1997)
SPNO is convinced that a strong and inclusive education system is a key factor in preventing poverty. The Quebec anti-poverty law actually frames the role of the education and continuing education system in that way in Article 8(3) (appended).
The Quebec law further affirms the role of other developmental supports such as culture, recreation and sports in addressing poverty. Bill 152 should similarly acknowledge this area at least in the Preamble, which is why SPNO recommends that in addition to improving economic conditions to break cycles of poverty that paragraph three also refer to improving “learning and developmental opportunities for children and families across Ontario.”
Summary of Recommendations
In summary, with respect to amendments to Bill 152, SPNO recommends:
1) That the first paragraph of the Preamble be amended to refer to “the vision of a poverty free province . . . ” as recommended in the 25 in 5 submission. SPNO also supports the other recommended amendments of the 25 in 5 Network.
2) That the current Government commit to a stronger target for its own child poverty reduction goal by adding to the second paragraph of the Preamble: “and a 50% reduction of Ontario children living in poverty within ten years.“ The Governments of Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador and the United Kingdom are all committed to major reductions in poverty over ten years, and Ontario should not hesitate to make the same commitment. In terms of concerns about binding future government’s in that regard, we point out:
- A five year commitment for a 25% child poverty reduction by 2013 already extends beyond this Government’s term with the next provincial election in 2011; and
- Government legislation is not binding – it will either be honoured or rescinded by future Governments of whatever political stripe.
3) That the third paragraph of the Preamble be amended to read: “The initial focus of the Government’s strategy is on breaking cycles of poverty by improving economic, learning and developmental opportunities for children and families across Ontario.” The recognition that structural conditions must be addressed to seriously reduce poverty in Ontario must be central to a comprehensive and effective strategy.
4) That the following fourth paragraph be added to the Preamble: “A continuing objective of the Government strategy is to reduce levels and depths of poverty for all adults across Ontario.” It is important for the Government to express its own clear commitment to substantive poverty reduction for all Ontarians beyond its initial focus on children and families in poverty.
The Social Planning Network of Ontario is committed to continue working with communities across the province for the development and implementation of serious and comprehensive strategies for a poverty free Ontario. The Government of Ontario has taken a first step to poverty reduction with the strategy that it released last year and some provisions in the 2009 budget.
We understand that the framework legislation represented in Bill 152 must be consistent with the current Government’s initial plan. We urge, however, that the legislation for framing a long-term poverty reduction strategy for Ontario be expansive enough to allow stronger action in the future by both this Government and future Governments of Ontario.
For this reason, we ask for serious consideration of the amendments proposed by the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction and our own proposed amendment to the Preamble herein.
Comité Consultatif de la Lutte Contre la Pauvreté et Exclusion Sociale (February 2009) Prevention of Persistent Poverty: Rethinking our approach. A wise human choice. Quebec.
Greg J. Duncan, Wei-Jun Yeung, Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Judith Smith (April 1997). How Much Does Childhood Poverty Affect the Life Chances of Children? Working Paper, Evanston, Ill: Institute for Policy Research.
Jonathan Rutherford (July 30, 2008). Losing the war on poverty. The Guardian, London, United Kingdom.
Minister Deb Matthews (December 2008). Breaking the Cycle: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Toronto, Ministry of Children and Youth Services.
Nathan Laurie (November 2008). The Cost of Poverty: An Analysis of the Economic Cost of Poverty in Ontario. Toronto: Ontario Association of Food Banks.
Nicole M. Fortin and Sophie Lefebvre (November 1998). Intergenerational Income Mobility in Canada. In Miles Corak, ed. Labour Markets, Social Institutions, and the Future of Canada’s Children. Ottawa, Statistics Canada.
Ontario CAMPAIGN 2000 (November 2008). 2008 Ontario report card on Child and Family Poverty. Toronto
Ontario Government (2009). Bill 152, An Act respecting a long-term strategy to reduce poverty in Ontario. 1st Session, 39th Legislature.
Quebec Government (2002). An Act to Combat Poverty and Social Exclusion. R.SQ., Chapter L-7 (Updated to April 2009).