Kevin Page and Tina Yuan are with the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa, and senior and junior fellows of Massey College at the University of Toronto, respectively.
Fall is coming. The days are getting shorter. The birds are flying south. Our political leaders will soon be returning to Ottawa. With the return of Parliament, the focus will shift to Budget 2018 preparations. The government has already signalled that reducing poverty and homelessness will be a major theme, in the same way innovation and skills took centre stage in Budget 2017 or child care and infrastructure in 2016.
Three strategic factors are creating a helpful tailwind for the government.
One factor is a stronger-than-anticipated economy. A rising tide (higher growth) can be used to float all boats.
Two: Policy homework is well under way. This is in large part attributable to work by parliamentary committees and special efforts such as At Home/Chez Soi – a four-year research project spearheaded by the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
Three: Good policy is good politics. The political left will appreciate the focus on the needs of vulnerable people, while the political right will confront evidence demonstrating better fiscal returns and economic and social outcomes with policy reform.
The case for making the reduction of poverty and homelessness a budget priority is grounded in numbers, hearts and minds.
The numbers are significant and disturbing – between three million and 4.5 million Canadians (9 per cent to 13 per cent) are living in poverty, depending on a range of reasonable definitions. Some 35,000 Canadians are homeless on any given night, while 235,000 will have this experience over a year. According to a Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corp. study, almost one in three Canadians lived in housing that was not acceptable for a number of reasons, affordability being the most critical among them.
Let's be frank: We are leaving behind our most vulnerable. Poverty is creating traps for children, seniors, people with disabilities, visible minorities and our Indigenous peoples. Six thousand young people are going homeless with five times that number spending time in a shelter. In 2014, nearly 3,000 veterans spent time in a shelter.
The economic and social benefits of addressing poverty and homelessness far outweigh the costs of inaction. The status quo is expensive. Change is required to achieve better social outcomes.
Policy challenges related to inadequate income levels and lack of affordable housing are significant, but they are not new. The policy context evolves with cyclical and structural changes in the economy. The policies are shared by all three levels of government. Governments (and the country at large) will sink or swim together.
The basic components of an anti-poverty and homelessness strategy are showing up in government studies (e.g., the 2017 House of Commons committee report, Breaking the Cycle: A Study on Poverty Reduction) and non-government studies (e.g., 2016 Canadian Observatory on Homelessness). A consensus is shaping up from the approach to a range of possible initiatives:
A broad policy framework that connects income support, education and training, housing, mental-health and community initiatives.
An overarching commitment to partnerships, with roles and responsibilities for all levels of government and support organizations.
Performance targets: reductions in poverty levels, increases in supported and affordable housing units and the elimination of chronic homelessness. We need a commitment to data, evidence-based decisions, performance monitoring and management.
Targeted strategies to address the needs of priority groups – youth, veterans and Indigenous peoples.
A commitment to innovation, building and expanding on the success of programs such as Housing First. We need an openness to trial-test new program designs, perhaps for targeted groups to better support incomes (e.g., guaranteed incomes) and housing affordability (e.g., portable housing benefits) or to involve the private sector (e.g., social-impact bonds). We need an openness to look hard at the performance of current programs, including the relative use and benefits of large shelters that do not provide integrated programming.
Sustainable funding. The anti-poverty and anti-homelessness strategy should set out a long-term funding commitment consistent with performance targets, monitoring and review, and fiscal sustainability.
Using baseball as a metaphor, the federal Liberal government is now making the turn at second base. It is now two budgets away from the next federal election. By most accounts, Budget 2017 did not land well. The government's innovation and skills agenda, while an important policy priority, lacked the gravitas of a spending review on the more than 100 current programs and $20-billion plus in annual spending.
Budget 2018 has the makings of success. The cart is behind the horse, where it should be.
Policy decisions can be made based on evidence and consultation. Reducing poverty and homelessness is the right initiative for the right time.