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An effective poverty reduction plan is not just a piece of paper

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Photo: kate hiscock/flickr

Last week, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition published its annual report card on child poverty in B.C. As in past years, the results were sobering. Based on 2012 data, 20.6 per cent of children, or one of five, live in poverty in B.C. Nearly half of children living in single parent families live below the poverty line.

Think about that. In a classroom of 25 kids, five of them don't have enough healthy food to eat or safe, secure homes to live in. They live with parents experiencing near constant stress and they are often socially isolated. The consequences for these children are wide-ranging and long-term. As a B.C. resident, I am not okay with this situation. It makes me angry. I'm not okay with living in a province that allows generations of children to grow up with their most basic needs unmet. But how do we fix it?

First Call provides a series of 19 specific recommendations for change at the provincial and federal level, with one overarching solution: for B.C. to adopt a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines and a cabinet minister with the authority and responsibility to ensure government is achieving its targets on time.

The call for a legislated poverty reduction plan is not new. First Call itself has been recommending a targeted strategy with timelines since at least 2007. The BC Poverty Reduction Coalition, a broad-based coalition that includes community and non-profit groups, faith groups, health organizations, First Nations and Aboriginal organizations, businesses, labour organizations, and social policy groups, has been calling for a plan since 2009. B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth has recommended a plan. This year, even B.C.'s all-party Committee on Finance and Government Services recommended that B.C. introduce a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.

B.C. is now the only province in Canada without a commitment to a poverty reduction plan.

So what was the government's response to First Call's recommendation this year? Despite clear requests for a legislated plan with firm targets and timelines, Stephanie Cadieux, Minister for Children and Family Development, was reported as stating, "A plan in and of itself doesn't mean anything to people on the ground. Programs and supports that actually have impact to children and families is what really matters." Minister Cadieux was also reported saying, "In B.C., we don't feel a legislated plan is required to help children out of poverty. Three of the four provinces that have legislated poverty plans in place have a higher poverty rate than B.C."

With respect to Minister Cadieux, it is clear that a legislated and comprehensive plan is required. B.C. has been stating that it has poverty reduction policies in place for years, including plans for job creation and regional poverty pilot plans. Setting aside the problems with treating these particular programs as comprehensive poverty reduction solutions, we are not effectively measuring the poverty-related outcomes of those solutions and we have seen only minimal improvement in the reduction of poverty in B.C.

If you were seriously ill, would you want your doctors to treat you without medical tests to determine the cause of your illness, or without follow-up tests to determine if your health actually improved from treatment? Would you want individual specialists to treat you without coordinating with each other? Would you want to be treated by anonymous doctors so you're unable to ask questions if you are not getting better or if you experience side effects?

Of course not, because in order to solve complex problems, we must meaningfully assess the problem, develop targeted solutions, coordinate the implementation of those solutions, and use meaningful accountability measures to see whether the solutions work. These are hallmarks of transparent and effective government policy aimed at solving complicated social problems, and it's precisely how we know whether our public programs are working.

Poverty is an incredibly complex problem that requires us to do better than our current untested, scattergun approach to solutions. We need to welcome the transparency that comes with a legislated plan. We need our government ministries to view working together as a positive step and we need someone willing to take the lead on that collaboration. We cannot be scared to commit to accountability measures including timelines for meeting specific targets -- how else will we know if we're succeeding?

Of course legislation simply titled a poverty reduction plan might not "mean anything to people on the ground" and it could be unsuccessful, but only if we allow that to happen. Whether or not any legislation effectively meets its objectives is largely within the control of those who draft the legislation and those who implement it.

I have confidence that the B.C. government can create and implement meaningful poverty reduction legislation that reflects the transparency, accountability and coordination required to make it more than another piece of paper. I hope our government can find that confidence in itself, otherwise our children will continue to pay the price.

Photo: kate hiscock/flickr

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