Miles Corak is a professor of economics at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He was the economist-in-residence at Employment and Social Development Canada during the 2017 calendar year, and wrote the foreword in the newly released federal report, Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy.
It begins just the way you’d expect. Prime Minister Trudeau is switching gears in time for the next election and has released what is probably the last plank of his middle-class agenda. This one is called Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy, and it begins with a list of policies, programs and budgets.
Well, grant him that much – a poverty reduction strategy certainly is budgets, programs and monies spent, all documented in page after page, including a lengthy appendix.
But whether you are poor, rich or middle-class, this is not good enough. A poverty reduction strategy must also be a set of priorities that reflect our concerns; priorities that are paired with measurable targets allowing Canadians to plot a path to somewhere better.
It is a way of answering, “Are we there yet?”
Credit is due not when budgets are spent, but when the goals we care about are efficiently and effectively achieved. It is a way of holding our governments to account, because it puts the focus on the connection between actions and results.
Surprisingly, at least for those who have witnessed the ups and downs of social policy over decades, Jean-Yves Duclos, the cerebral and analytical university-professor-turned-politician and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, has delivered.
No more ambiguity about the “middle class” and the famous “those working hard to join them.”
The minister has defined an official poverty line for the first time in Canadian history. Go figure; we never had one.
Governors of the Bank of Canada continually have their feet held to the fire by their inflation target. Ministers of finance are always looking over their shoulders trying to stay ahead of budget deficits, whether too big, too small or just right. And so now, finally, ministers of social affairs will also be held to account by a simple statistic.
Mr. Duclos has gone further and set clear targets for lowering the fraction of Canadians living in poverty from 12 per cent to 10 per cent by 2020, and then to 6 per cent by 2030. Go figure; having fewer than one-in-10 Canadians living in poverty would be a historic accomplishment.
Past governments may seem to have been more ambitious. After all, the House of Commons passed a resolution in 1989 that received unanimous support and committed the federal government to “seek to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.”
But this turned out to be nothing more than an aspiration. In 2005, UNICEF reviewed Canada’s progress, saying the promise “has not been kept, nor has any official definition or measure of child poverty been adopted.”
Mr. Duclos’s targets, although less lofty, are in a sense more powerful for being hard-nosed and tied to a measurable statistic. They are within reach, but still a stretch. Besides, he likely wants to curry international favour by lining them up with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
But a poverty reduction strategy cannot be just about whether Statistics Canada tells us that some figure took an uptick or a dip a year-and-a-half ago.
It’s about whether Canadians have the resources and capabilities to live life with dignity and to participate normally in society; about whether the young have a solid education that will open doors for them; about whether those doors are open free of discrimination so that everyone’s skills and talents are recognized; about whether families are confident in the future, knowing they can deal with the challenges that tomorrow will surely bring.
Mr. Duclos uses words such as “dignity,” “opportunity” and “resilience” that echo a statement released by his provincial and territorial counterparts earlier this summer.
These three words summarize the moral purpose that should motivate his poverty reduction strategy.
But his document will only prove its use with time if it fosters a sense of urgency among this and future governments – not just federally, but also at the provincial and municipal levels.
There is an unfortunate risk that progress the federal government makes in dealing with aspects of the problem for which it has the tools – mostly income transfers and taxes – will lead provincial premiers and city mayors to lift their feet off the gas pedal, taking credit for seeing one poverty target achieved without paying attention to all the other aspects of well-being for which they are responsible – the things that really matter – such as food security, health needs, adequate housing or quality education.
But at least Canadians now have a statistic or two for holding all of them to account.