Liberals' new poverty reduction strategy is more PR than strategy

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Diane Lebouthillier, Minister of National Revenue and Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development. Photo: #G7Charlevoix/Flickr

To their credit, the Trudeau Liberals put real money in the pockets of lower-income Canadian families in 2016 by enacting the Canada Child Benefit (CCB), a yearly tax-free payment of up to $6,496 per year for each child under six, and $5,481 per year for those aged six to 17.

Compared to programs it replaced, the CCB added $3,535 per year for a family with income of $35,000, according to the Finance Department.

Team Trudeau are so proud of the CCB that they have re-packaged it as the centrepiece of a new anti-poverty strategy presented last week by Families, Children and Social Development Minister Jean-Yves Duclos, a former Laval University economics professor.

The problem with the anti-poverty statement is that it includes no new poverty reduction measures: not one dollar in additional spending, no commitment to a social safety net for those currently living on the streets, no repairs to the broken employment insurance program which is unavailable to two-thirds of workers, and no mention of the near poor -- the millions of people struggling to survive with barely enough.

The anti-poverty strategy is not a strategy to reduce poverty: it is a public relations vehicle that takes the CCB and bundles it with an assorted selection of spending promises -- mainly for the distant future -- to improve housing, add child care, increase incomes for seniors, and better life for Indigenous people.

A big part of its PR package is that Canada will now have an official poverty measure, complete with an Advisory Council to hold the government to account if it fails to meet its targets of reducing poverty from 2015 levels by 20 per cent in 2020 and by 50 per cent in 2030.

Absolute poverty is a problem and the so-called "market basket" that measures it will be the new official poverty measure.

The low-income measure (LIM) captures relative poverty, and is in wide use internationally. Those with less than 50 per cent of the median income are considered low income. The two measures differ importantly and as Andrew Jackson has pointed out, need to be looked at together to identify issues each one misses.

The market basket measure is an attempt to calculate basic consumption needs for individuals and families based on forecasted expenditures on food, clothing, transport (bus pass for urban, five-year-old car for isolated rural) and services. For a family of four, the market basket is full at just over $32,000 in rural Quebec and $40,000 in Toronto. A telephone is budgeted for, but internet services will only be included when more than 70 per cent of Canadian households have it, which tells you most of what you need to know about how satisfying the basket would be to most Canadians.

The appeal for the Liberals is that with the market basket measure in place, the government can proclaim reduction in official poverty from the beginning of their mandate in 2015, thanks to the CCB, which is estimated to have already lifted some 300,000 Canadians out of poverty.

The poverty section of the CCPA Alternative Federal Budget 2018 lays out how the Liberals could actually reduce poverty by 50 per cent over the next three years, instead of making Canadians wait for the never-never land of 2030.

Without any comparative perspective on how other countries deal with low income, the Duclos anti-poverty statement falls short of what is needed to enlighten the public.

The CCB, welcome as it may be, alone does not provide Canadian families with the assistance they deserve, compared to what is available in France, for example, where a full child-care program -- not a promised one -- exists alongside generous per-child cash benefits and income replacement programs for parental leave that go beyond what is provided (through EI) to Canadian parents.

The Duclos paper backs away from historical analysis. There is no attempt to explain, for instance, why the nearly 30-year-old 1989 all-party parliamentary resolution to abolish child poverty by the year 2000 failed to achieve anything near its objective.

Homelessness and destitution deserve special attention from the Canadian government and they receive none in the anti-poverty statement.

The reality is that Canada has many people living in poverty, but also gross inequalities of the type caught by the LIM measure but not the market basket measure. Both concerns need to be addressed -- and simultaneously -- because they are linked.

Though it may ring harshly to Liberal ears, some people are poor because others are wealthy.

Low market wages and poor employment practices are the main reason people are poor. Corporate and government union-bashing policies contribute greatly to inequality, along with out-of-control executive pay packages, and an unwillingness to tax great wealth.

The Liberal anti-poverty strategy relies on the well-known public relations principle that for the public, perception is reality. Making people think you are doing something should be enough to garner their support.

What the Liberals prefer not to mention is that their approach requires the provinces to bring people above the poverty line.

Premier of Ontario Doug Ford: are you listening? You are supposed to improve the Ontario welfare program to reduce the official poverty count by the federal government.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: #G7Charlevoix/Flickr

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