Understanding the Ontario backlash against Canada’s first poverty reduction strategy

On the afternoon of August 17, 2018, the advisory committee on poverty reduction to federal Minister Jean Yves Duclos received an hour long briefing from the Minister on the soon to be released poverty reduction strategy. It was a key opportunity for the 17 of us to discover how much influence we had in the drafting of the final report.

I was returning to Scarborough from the Queens International Institute on Social Policy (QIISP) and had pulled off the 401, west of Deseronto and parked in a verdant cul de sac on the lands of the Mohawk people, the Tyendinaga First Nation. It was a good setting to listen and respond to the Minister.

As Minister Duclos briefed us, a slow smile formed on my face as I began to realize that for the first time in 151 years, Canada would have an official poverty line. No matter that Canada would be late to the party. As a nation, we would now have an officially recognized measure by which to measure need, our programs and our policies.

My smile deepened when I heard the Minister say that Canada would adopt two targets: a 20% reduction in poverty by 2020 and a 50% drop by 2030. This was so close to what the advisory committee had recommended that I began to realize just how deep our influence had been.

I was elated to hear next that there would be a legislated advisory group formed in legislation to deliver a report to Parliament each year on progress made to reduce poverty and that it would have strong representation from people with lived experience of poverty.

We also understood the Government of Canada would take an ‘all of government’ approach to poverty reduction calling on all government departments and all other orders of government to pull together to fight poverty.

As I pulled back on the 401, I was very proud and looked forward with great anticipation to the announcement of the strategy on the following Tuesday.

At 1:30 on Tuesday August 21, 2018, I tweeted out the URL linking to the new strategy – Opportunity For All – and posted it on Facebook with great anticipation of congratulatory messages,  positive emojis, and retweets. I did not have to wait long to discover that the reaction from advocates and activists would be very much different than I had expected.

My first Facebook reaction literally within minutes of my posting was that the new strategy was ‘crap’. Another friend weighed in with the pronouncement that the new strategy was ‘BS’. Both reactions were from Ontarians.

The more general reaction that I can put into three words is that “There’s nothing here”.

Over the next week, outside of social media, the Toronto Star issued an editorial response that included the following passages:

“A broad strategy with measurable targets is useful for keeping governments on track towards important, long-term poverty reduction goals.But that’s cold comfort to the millions of Canadians living in poverty today. They need more immediate relief and, on that front, there’s so much the federal government could have included in this long-awaited strategy.”

“So the takeaway from the Opportunity For All strategy really seems to be that Ottawa intends to truck along with current social program investments and see where the numbers land.Canadians in need deserve better”[1]

Others asked me in social media:

“So half the poor have to wait 12 years and the other half stay in poverty forever?” and

“I hope you didn’t sign on to this!”

The Ontario based Income Security Advocacy Centre (ISAC) said:

“Unfortunately, while the CPRS does highlight the variety of existing government programs and investments related to poverty reduction, such as the Canada Child Benefit; it does not include any new initiatives, policies or spending commitments. The CPRS does not include new measures that would fulfill the government’s poverty reduction targets and goals.”

“Our submissions also highlighted the deterioration of federal standards for provincial and territorial social assistance programs, and recommended changes that would help ensure that the Canada Social Transfer can play a better role in reducing poverty. Unfortunately, changes such as this are also not part of the CPRS.”[2]

Although many public policy analysts saw the important merits of constructing an unprecedented plan with measures, targets, and monitoring without new funding, it appears that most others did not.

After the initial shock, I began to see that governments, unlike other entities, cannot engage in strategic planning without making a down payment on the plan if the plan is to have broad appeal. Governments are expected to make announcements with a cheque attached and a poverty reduction strategy is no different.

But the fact that no new money is attached is just not strong enough an explanation for the immediate, visceral and negative reaction I had experienced. So I began to look elsewhere for reasons why activists would foreclose on Canada’s first ever poverty reduction within minutes of its release.

Certainly, the foreclosure did not involve the government not going far enough in its strategy. For at least 50 years, activists have been calling for Canada to adopt an official poverty measure and almost everyone had ruled out the low income cutoffs as an appropriate measure leaving the Low Income Measure (LIM) and the Market Basket Measure as the leaders in the Clubhouse.

And for many years, advocates called for targets that included all those living in poverty, not just child poverty which was the target population in 1989. Welcome news again.

Anti-poverty activists and advocates had also called for the reinstatement of the National Council of Welfare (NCW) that Mr. Harper had killed by repealing the legislation that kept this national body in place. Once again, welcome news with the new advisory group.

But looking elsewhere, I think I found the reason for the disappointment and negative reactions by conducting a simple thought experiment.

Let me try it out on you.

Let’s say for a moment that Kathleen Wynne or Andrea Horvath had prevailed in the Ontario election in June. Or let’s envision that there had been a Liberal, PC or NDP minority in Ontario.

In any of those events, it is highly likely that the Ontario Basic Income Plan (OBIP) and the 19 social assistance improvements from the Income Security Road map would have remained in place. Now let’s imagine the same federal poverty reduction strategy being announced at the beginning of five straight months of social assistance improvements and the continuation of a basic income pilot that had clearly caught the imagination of the public.

In my mind, the reception to the federal plan would have been far different. I think that almost everyone in the anti-poverty space would have seen unprecedented promise as opposed to the stark dissonance of the spectre of mandatory workfare and time limits on social assistance hinted at by social services Minister Lisa MacLeod.

And I freely admit that the mixed messages about poverty are tough to think about. For example, how can we possibly think that poverty will be reduced when the poorest of the poor will face incomes that are lower in real terms than the levels that Mr. Harris chopped them to in 1995?

How can we picture poverty reduction given the spectre that planned minimum wage increases might be rolled back?

How can we think that poverty will be reduced in two years or ten years when we experience the abrupt termination of a pilot project that would have told us much about how a different method of securing income would have worked?

The answer is that it’s hard to picture poverty reduction in a new era of non-cooperation on social issues between Canada’s largest province and its federal counterpart.

I agree that cancellation and cuts can make a broad plan look ineffective.

But I would ask activists and advocates in Ontario not to be fooled by the confusion, the entropy and the dissonance. The dystopia of the present does not make ‘Opportunity For All’ ineffective.  It only delays it.

We are now in an era in Ontario where for at least the next 45 months, cities, towns and regions  and the federal government will have to join up and more or less go it alone when it comes to good social policy governance. They will have to join with academics, think tanks, social policy analysts and Foundations to breathe life into national measures and targets while nourishing new voices leading the way to a national vision for poverty reduction.

The national poverty reduction strategy is your strategy. There is no such thing as ‘drive by advocacy’ and there is only one haul: the long haul. Don’t dismiss a good long term strategy just because one level of government believes that cheap beer is more important than good social policy.

(Thanks to Havi Echenberg and Armine Yalnizyan for expressions in the last paragraph.)


[1] https://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorials/2018/08/27/canadas-poverty-strategy-stitched-together-existing-policies-and-called-it-a-new-plan.html

[2] http://incomesecurity.org/policy-advocacy/federal-government-releases-national-poverty-reduction-strategy/