Five years ago this week, the Ontario government embarked on a bold and historic challenge to reduce child and family poverty across our province by 25 per cent by 2013. While it appears Ontario will fall short of its “25 in 5” target, the province has made some progress and laid three critical building blocks that should provide the foundation for its next five-year strategy, expected in early 2014.
The first building block was forged in understanding the connection between fairness and economic prosperity. Ontario should take a page from the response to the most recent economic downturn, where a rising consensus emerged – including World Bank economists and finance ministers of all political stripes – that fighting poverty is required to grow our economy.
Ontario’s 2008 maxim that “we need all hands on deck” to drive our province’s recovery rings as true today as it did then. In an increasingly competitive global economy, it is crucial that we maximize the potential of every Ontarian to both participate in and benefit from economic activity. In a time of fiscal challenges, governments must invest in pathways to opportunity or be saddled with rising costs in health care and social services borne of persistent poverty.
Ontario’s second building block against poverty comes from knowing that good intentions alone cannot sustain a long-term commitment to poverty. Clear goals backed up with a comprehensive strategy must be part of the roadmap to progress.
The government’s willingness to set a clear “25 in 5” target in 2008 came with political risk and took courage. While Ontario’s performance was far from perfect, it has led to tangible gains. Ontario’s child poverty rate of 13.8 per cent in 2011, the latest year for which Statistics Canada figures are available, was down from 15.2 per cent in 2008. This means 41,000 fewer children were living in poverty, a reduction of just over 9 per cent in three, economically challenging years.
Different choices would have undoubtedly led to better outcomes, especially for households without children. But substantial early investments in policies like the new Ontario Child Benefit, refundable tax credits for low income people, and minimum wage hikes show that smart social policy works. Or at least as much as you are willing to invest in it.
The next plan must raise the bar. It should seek to cut poverty among all Ontarians in half by 2018, achieving a reduction in the overall poverty rate in Ontario to below 6 per cent and the child poverty rate to below 7.5 per cent.
The third building block for Ontario’s next poverty reduction strategy is building momentum by starting strong.
Five years ago, Ontario did not flinch in the face of a recession. The government immediately accelerated investments in the Ontario Child Benefit. It increased minimum wages when workers needed them most. It moved quickly to entrench poverty reduction into legislation. It invested in community services in priority neighbourhoods. And it revised legislation on worker protections and predatory lending practices within the first year of the plan.
These down payments were critical in achieving initial gains against poverty. They also put real money in the hands of real people to spend in their communities, providing stimulus to a battered economy.
But Ontario has not always carried through with as much vigour as the challenge of poverty requires. Case in point was the 2012 decision to eliminate the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit (CSUMB), a modest fund intended to provide a life-line to Ontarians at risk of homelessness.
As the next five-year blueprint is set to be unveiled early in 2014, it is time for Ontario to raise the bar on poverty reduction, starting with a substantial down payment as a building block for success.
Such a down payment should increase social assistance, the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, to build on gains from the initial strategy.
Addressing the need for affordable housing is key. As municipalities struggle with the repercussions of the CSUMB cut, Ontario should shore up its commitment to the most vulnerable by making transitional housing and homelessness funding permanent. And the government should also match federal housing funding commitments.
Action to resolve the growing precariousness of jobs is another urgent step to take to achieve fairness while helping to drive the economy.
But so much more needs to be done. The 2008 Poverty Reduction Strategy opened the door for substantive action. It’s now time to act boldly toward eradicating poverty in our province by investing in a prosperity agenda that benefits us all.
Sarah Blackstock of YWCA-Toronto and Greg deGroot-Maggetti of Mennonite Central Committee Ontario represent the 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction.