The provincial government’s commitment to introduce a poverty reduction plan by the end of 2008 could mean that hope is finally on the way for those who have been excluded from opportunity.
The stakes are high. Poverty has a tremendous negative impact on children’s ability to learn. As they grow up, poor children are more likely to experience ill health and drop out of school and less likely to take part in post-secondary education. They have fewer prospects for a bright future. These are all commonly agreed facts, as are the answers about what must be done.
UNICEF’s groundbreaking research series about child poverty in industrialized nations draws on some of the best international evidence, and teaches us three primary lessons about how to achieve lasting progress on poverty:1
- There is no one single silver bullet. In the first industrial nations’ report card in 2001, UNICEF reminded us that “children are kept in poverty not by a padlock to which there is a single key but by a combination lock that requires an alignment of factors if it is to be released.” Those nations that are serious invest in a combination of good jobs, strong income security programs, and generous social programs such as housing and early learning and child care.
- Tackling poverty requires significant social investments and the commitment to put the resources in place to get the job done.
- Every industrialized nation has the capacity to significantly reduce poverty if it is ready to make a serious political commitment over a long sustained period of time.
Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Sweden, and Finland are outstanding examples of UNICEF’s lessons. By continuing to invest in strong social safety nets – through good times and bad – these nations have achieved the lowest child poverty rates in the world.
They have also managed to achieve a fine balance between economic and social bottom lines. Denmark, Sweden, and Finland occupy the top six spots in the World Economic Forums’s latest Global Competitiveness Index. Investing in people is proving to be a winning strategy. 2
Success in Ireland and the UK
Happily, more and more jurisdictions are taking this evidence seriously. Ireland and the UK both have adopted multi-pronged approaches to tackle poverty and social exclusion.
The UK, for instance, set out to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent in five years beginning in 1999; it hit the 23 per cent mark in 2003. Most importantly, the UK government unveiled renewed strategies and investments to continue to pursue its goal of halving poverty within a decade.
After exceeding the poverty reduction targets it first set in 1997, Ireland is aiming at eliminating persistent poverty by 2016.
How did they get there? Their success can be partly attributed to the introduction of concrete plans, with clearly defined goals, specific benchmarks and indicators, and precise timelines. They stuck to UNICEF’s key lessons of pursuing multi-pronged strategies, backing them up with resources, and showing the political will necessary to succeed.
As a part of its strategy, the UK invested heavily in family benefits, doubled the number of child care spaces, and facilitated greater involvement by people with disabilities in the labour market. While Ireland reaped the benefits of a red-hot economy and tremendous labour force growth, it also doubled the basic rate of social welfare for the unemployed since the beginning of its plan, among other critical steps.
Some provinces move forward
In Canada we have had some good-news stories from which to build on poverty reduction. From its relatively small role a decade ago, the Canada Child Tax Benefit has grown to become a powerful tool in lifting hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty every year. According to the latest Campaign 2000 National Report, without income security programs such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit the child poverty rate would have been a third higher.3
And it now seems that some Canadian jurisdictions are ready to move from piecemeal programs to a comprehensive planned approach, backed by multi-year targets.
Quebec passed anti-poverty legislation in 2002, with the aim of becoming one of the industrialized nations with the least number of persons living in poverty by 2013. Since then it has continued to invest in family-friendly policies, including its famed $7-a-day child care program, improved child benefits, and access to affordable housing. As a result, the province’s poverty rates have declined steadily. Based on the after-tax low income cut-off (LICO), between 1997 and 2005 the overall proportion of people living on low incomes declined to 11.8 per cent from 19.3 per cent, and the proportion of children living in low-income families decreased to 9.6 per cent from 22.4 per cent.4
Newfoundland and Labrador were next. In 2006, the government pledged to transform the province over the next decade from one with the most poverty to one with the least. The government’s action plan focuses on improved coordination and social benefits, along with a priority on early childhood development. It is too early to assess progress, but Newfoundland and Labrador have certainly taken the first steps in a poverty reduction strategy.
It’s Ontario’s turn
In the past two budgets Ontario has introduced a plan to raise the minimum wage to over $10 an hour, a new Ontario Child Benefit, and down payments on a housing and a dental program. The government’s intention to support full day learning for four and five-year-olds is also key to levelling the playing field.
With its commitment to introduce a poverty reduction strategy by the end of 2008, Ontario now has an opportunity to follow the example of others and really move ahead.
We must dream big. Many generations before us overcame impossible odds to give us our public education system, medicare, and old age security. What will our gift be?
A real, permanent solution to poverty would be a great legacy. It is within all of us to make it a reality.
For more information and to connect your efforts with those of others, visit:
• The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction: 25in5.ca
• Campaign 2000: campaign2000.ca
• Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care: childcareontario.ca
1. unicef.org/media/files/ChildPovertyReport.pdf ; unicef-icdc.org/publications/pdf/repcard1e.pdf