MASTHEAD-2Progress has been achieved in the fight against poverty, writes Sean Speer. Attention should now turn to those at-risk of persistent poverty.

This post is based on remarks delivered to the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities on February 21, 2017.

By Sean Speer, March 14, 2017

I’m grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the committee’s study on a Federal Poverty Reduction Strategy.

I want to congratulate all members for the study’s comprehensive terms of reference. Implicit is a recognition that there’s no silver bullet and that poverty’s underlying causes are multi-faceted and highly individualized. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t make meaningful progress, however incremental.

Ottawa’s principal role is an enabling one – that is, the federal government is primarily responsible for creating the conditions for economic opportunity and upward mobility. It has several levers, including its tax and transfers policies, to help those in poverty envision and pursue a better future.

Former British Prime Minister David Cameron referred to his poverty reduction strategy as a “Life Chances” agenda. There’s something to this type of thinking. Life chances, I would contend, are what this committee is ultimately studying.

Of course, there’s plenty to say on the subject of a Federal Poverty Reduction Strategy. I’d be remiss if I didn’t observe, for instance, that any such strategy must place a major emphasis on improving the life chances of our Indigenous people, including on- and off-reserve.

But I’ll focus my presentation on what we know about poverty, how we think about it, and what practical steps we can take to create the conditions for greater economic and social opportunity, particularly for those at-risk of persistent poverty. I’ll argue that that group ought to be the focus of the government’s efforts.

What We Know About Poverty

Let’s start with some basic facts.

  • Over the last 20 years, the percentage of Canadian households in poverty has declined from 6.7 percent in 1996 to 4.8 percent in 2009.
  • The share living below Statistics Canada’s low-income cut-off has also decreased from 15.2 percent in 1996 to 9.7 percent in 2013.
  • This progress is broad-based. The incidence of low income among children, seniors, and persons in lone-parent families has also dropped.
  • Low income tends to be transitory – research from Statistics Canada that only 1.5 percent of Canadians were in persistent low income from 2005 to 2010.

I don’t cite these data to claim that the committee’s study is superfluous or to diminish its importance. But rather to (1) celebrate our advances and (2) focus the rest of my discussion.

An Anti-Poverty Consensus

The progress that we have achieved is largely the result of a growing intellectual and political consensus on the role of government and public policy to address poverty and enable life chances.

Notwithstanding occasional political rhetoric, the Left and Right agree more on these questions than we often think.

Notwithstanding occasional political rhetoric, the Left and Right agree more on these questions than we often think. The Left has come to accept the limits of state action and to see poverty as more than a problem of materialism. The Right has come to recognize that the solution is more than simply “pulling oneself up by his or her bootstraps” and involves a role for carefully-designed government intervention. Our debates on this question at least have come to be fought within the 40-yard lines.

This consensus has manifested itself in specific policies, including generous child-care benefits, low-income grants for education, targeted income subsidies for the working poor, and public pensions for low-income seniors. Progress has been made by Conservative and Liberal prime ministers and premiers.

These policies, which draw on the best ideas and traditions of the Left and the Right, have had an important effect on poverty and economic participation in Canada. The committee’s eventual study therefore ought to ensure that it’s accounting for post-tax and transfer measurements of poverty.

It’s simply a fact that a child born in a poor household today is better off in several ways than he or she were a few decades ago. We shouldn’t lose sight of this progress. And we should celebrate that good ideas from across the political spectrum are responsible.

Further Progress on Poverty

But nor should we rest on our laurels. We must continue to reform and improve programming to help low-income Canadians climb the economic and social ladder. I’ve recently written an essay with a former NDP adviser, for instance, on expanding the Working Income Tax Benefit that was created by the previous Conservative government, supported by the NDP, and will be expanded by the current Liberal government.

But the key priority must be to target those at-risk of persistent poverty including persons with disabilities, those with less than high school education, and individuals from lone-parent families.

But the key priority must be to target those at-risk of persistent poverty including persons with disabilities, those with less than high school education, and individuals from lone-parent families. This is where the problems are most intractable and for which we have the clearest societal obligation to help our fellow citizens.

These aren’t cases of people temporarily experiencing low-income following graduation or because of job loss or who need a helping hand in the short-term to pursue their goals. These are cases where individuals face health-related or other forms of major barriers to paid work.

Progress with these groups won’t be easy. The factors that contribute to persistent poverty are complex and varied. Solutions will thus differ. It will require trial and error and highly personalized programming and services. Here federalism and localism will invariably be a virtue rather than a vice.

More generous cash transfers are part of the answer for some. Especially for persons with “very severe” disabilities whose employment levels are one-third of the non-disabled population. The government should make Disability Tax Credit refundable, for instance.

But cash transfers aren’t not the solution for everyone – for example, it could be detrimental for someone with a substance abuse problem.

The point is that those at-risk of perpetual poverty should be the chief focus of a Federal Poverty Reduction Strategy and this will invariably involve different policies and tools than those to address in transitory low-income or to help Canadians climb the economic and social ladder.

To reaffirm my key observations: we must recognize that we’ve made tremendous progress and that a political consensus on public policy is a big part of the reason. Now we must focus on those experiencing persistent poverty and the solutions for these people require trial and error and highly personalized interventions.

Sean Speer is a Munk Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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