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British Columbia B.C.’s poverty-reduction plan keeps the single-parent family in mind

The B.C. Liberal government has, in the past few weeks, rolled out improvements to the province's social safety net, targeting single parents and their children. If the measures were packaged together, they might be called a child poverty reduction plan.

The amount of income families with children can keep without it being clawed back from their income assistance benefits has been doubled, which should help about 10,600 families. The clawback of child support payments from income assistance has been dropped entirely. The minimum wage will be tied to the rate of inflation to provide regular annual increases.

The province has also launched an ambitious training opportunity to allow up to 16,000 single parents on income assistance to go back to school. The initiative would allow parents to collect benefits for a year while training for an "in-demand" occupation. The full cost of child care, tuition and transportation would be covered.

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The Liberals do not want to be measured against targets – perhaps having learned from their unmet job-creation goals. They have not bundled these changes into a slogan-ready program.

But the orphaned initiatives are linked, Stephanie Cadieux says.

"It's a plan," said Ms. Cadieux, who is minister of children and family development.

When she was minister of social development, she was instrumental in shaping this plan-without-a-name that happens to take aim at child poverty.Within the B.C. Liberal caucus, Ms. Cadieux would end up on the camp with the fiscal hawks. She said her government has always intended to improve welfare and disability programs, but it could not happen until the economy was firmly back in growth mode.

"I don't think this is the last [of the changes] at all. The more we succeed, the more flexibility we have to do things."

Ms. Cadieux does believe the cumulative impact will be improvements in B.C.'s embarrassingly high rates of child poverty.

"Will there ever be enough money to do everything that everyone would like? I don't know whether that is possible," she said in an interview. She said other provinces have had mixed success with poverty reduction programs, and there is not one model she thinks is worth adopting.

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"Our approach has been working, and while it isn't fast enough, we are not comparing apples to apples across the country. … We have focused on targeted investments, targeted supports and we are going to continue to do that."

Critics are quick to point out that as a plan, by any name, it falls far short of what families struggling with poverty need. And the success of the Liberals' approach may take a year or more to measure.

Michelle Stilwell, who took over as minister of social development and social innovation in February, says the changes that are being implemented are part of a long-term strategy.

"I walked into something significant, a big shift," she said.

She credits Ms. Cadieux and Don McRae, who also handled the social development file before the last cabinet shuffle. She, too, avoids the phrase "poverty reduction," stressing instead the need to "break down the barriers that stand in the way" of families that have fallen into the poverty trap.

It is a start, but does it simply nibble at the edges of child poverty or will it make a genuine difference?

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Anti-poverty activist Sue Collard is on the national board of ACORN Canada, an organization of low-income families, and she has herself tried to raise a family on income assistance in B.C. and has worked in low-income jobs.

"It's a poor simulacrum of a poverty-reduction plan," Ms. Collard said. "I don't think we are going to see a change in the child poverty rate."

Last November, the advocacy group First Call published a report that concluded this province's child poverty rate is above the national average – one in five kids in B.C. lives in poverty. Although the Liberals have studiously sought to avoid any link between their programs and this statistic, it is the one that their efforts will be measured by.

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