The many faces of poverty in Canada

The Hamilton Spectator - - Comment - MICHAEL WOLF­SON Michael Wolf­son is a mem­ber of the Cen­tre for Health Law, Pol­icy and Ethics at the Univer­sity of Ot­tawa and a con­trib­u­tor with Ev­i­denceNet­work.ca based at the Univer­sity of Win­nipeg. He was a Canada Re­search chair at the Univer­sity of Ott

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment is to be con­grat­u­lated on its just-re­leased Poverty Re­duc­tion Strat­egy.

The strat­egy it­self, run­ning to more than 100 pages, en­dorses the idea of an of­fi­cial poverty line, re­liev­ing Sta­tis­tics Canada from the im­pos­si­ble task of find­ing a purely sta­tis­ti­cal ba­sis for defin­ing and mea­sur­ing poverty.

It fur­ther en­dorses the idea that poverty has many di­men­sions — in­clud­ing hous­ing, food in­se­cu­rity and health and dis­abil­ity — so re­quires a dash­board of sta­tis­ti­cal mea­sures in or­der for Cana­di­ans, and gov­ern­ment pol­icy, to be well and ap­pro­pri­ately in­formed.

To back up these ideas, the gov­ern­ment has pro­vided new fund­ing for Sta­tis­tics Canada to im­prove the un­der­ly­ing data. And the gov­ern­ment has set it­self a spe­cific and very sub­stan­tial tar­get — re­duc­ing the per­cent­age of of­fi­cially poor Cana­di­ans by 50 per cent by 2030. This may not sound as dra­matic as elim­i­nat­ing poverty fully, but it is both am­bi­tious and more re­al­is­tic.

Cana­di­ans can and should be proud to live in the kind of con­vivial so­ci­ety that can achieve this goal.

Some anti-poverty ad­vo­cates may be dis­ap­pointed that there isn’t a large in­fu­sion of new pro­gram fund­ing an­nounced along with the strat­egy. On this, the gov­ern­ment points out that it has al­ready made a va­ri­ety of sub­stan­tial in­vest­ments to tackle poverty, in­clud­ing rolling back the Harper gov­ern­ment’s cuts to the Old Age Se­cu­rity pen­sion and Guar­an­teed In­come Supplement, and in­tro­duc­ing the new Canada Child and Work­ers Ben­e­fits. And it still has some time un­til the next elec­tion to put for­ward fur­ther pro­pos­als.

In the mean­time, im­prov­ing the in­for­ma­tion base in line with the broad­ened dis­cus­sion of the main fac­tors defin­ing poverty is very wel­come. As the strat­egy pa­per in­di­cates, to have ef­fec­tive poli­cies, we need to know where we want to go, which, in turn, means hav­ing clear un­der­stand­able in­di­ca­tors for the most im­por­tant di­men­sions of poverty.

Gov­ern­ment re­sources should be spent where they will have the most ben­e­fi­cial im­pact.

If poverty in­volves more than hav­ing low in­come, then importantly, ben­e­fi­cial anti-poverty im­pacts can be achieved by means go­ing be­yond in­creas­ing dis­pos­able in­comes. The pol­icy chal­lenge is de­cid­ing just which kinds of anti-poverty in­ter­ven­tions, over and above in­creased cash trans­fers or re­fund­able tax cred­its, have the great­est po­ten­tial ben­e­fit.

The strat­egy de­fines poverty in terms of “hav­ing the re­sources, means, choices and power nec­es­sary to main­tain a ba­sic level of liv­ing stan­dard that en­ables mean­ing­ful in­te­gra­tion and participation in so­ci­ety.” This in turn, re­quires reg­u­lar up­dat­ing of the new of­fi­cial poverty line.

But a key area of am­bi­gu­ity is just how the of­fi­cial poverty line will be up­dated over time. This ques­tion is not very im­por­tant in the short term, but over the pe­riod to 2030, when the gov­ern­ment has tar­geted a 50 per cent re­duc­tion in the of­fi­cial poverty rate, it can be highly sig­nif­i­cant.

His­tor­i­cally, the mar­ket bas­ket mea­sure on which the of­fi­cial poverty line will be based, has been up­dated in line with in­fla­tion.

But the strat­egy’s def­i­ni­tion that avoid­ing poverty means mean­ing­ful participation in so­ci­ety sug­gests that over the time span of a decade or more, the of­fi­cial line must be up­dated in a way that keeps it aligned with av­er­age or me­dian liv­ing stan­dards.

The mode of up­dat­ing the of­fi­cial poverty line may seem an ar­cane tech­ni­cal ques­tion, but it is very im­por­tant that the up­dat­ing pro­ce­dure be clearly spec­i­fied. One es­sen­tial rea­son is to avoid fu­ture gov­ern­ments play­ing games with this pro­ce­dure — for ex­am­ple, with slower up­dat­ing, in or­der to make it eas­ier to claim that their 50 per cent tar­get has been met.

All in all, the gov­ern­ment is to be com­mended for this fun­da­men­tal start on a poverty re­duc­tion strat­egy.

We will have to watch care­fully, though, to see whether next steps are likely to keep it on track to meet the 50 per cent re­duc­tion tar­get, and that the tar­get it­self can­not be gamed.

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