By Mary Boyd
Many of us have been involved in the struggle against poverty on P.E.I., in Canada and globally for several years and we don't want to be negative. But how can we respond to government's inadequate Social Acton Plan to Reduce Poverty, released on May 30?
MIT economist Daron Acemoglu states, "The real problem is that economic inequality, when it becomes this large, translates into political inequality." The "this large" applies to both Canada and P.E.I. Political and economic inequality is rampant. Take, for example, the poorest 20 per cent of Islanders who have only seven per cent of the Island's after-tax income. They are mostly the unemployed, underemployed part-time and seasonal workers, minimum-wage earners, single mothers, social assistance recipients, single seniors, people with disabilities, recent newcomers and aboriginal people.
The 'plan' shocked us, but we shouldn't be surprised since there were no public hearings. Those who waited for a Poverty Eradication Strategy promised by Premier Ghiz on Feb. 19, 2009 were very disappointed. All the volunteer work - of negotiating with government, researching poverty, writing reports, holding public meetings, mobilizing people and even walking the Confederation Trail with David MacIsaac's anti-poverty walk - was for naught. We have: neither a plan nor a strategy; mostly a list of past achievements, the routine work of a department, and no long-term goals to eradicate poverty.
Government's Social Action Plan has two goals. The first is a vague statement about "supporting people to move out of poverty." The second goal, "to protect and enhance the standard of living and quality of life of those unable to participate in the labour force for whatever reason," makes little sense, especially without measurable targets. Why would someone in poverty want to protect their standard of living and quality of life when they live way below the poverty line and lack the basic necessities of life? There are 10 points listed under the second goal that Islanders have asked government to implement. The list is incomplete. Our input was much more comprehensive. Besides, Islanders asked for fair taxes, not the regressive HST that will cost low-income Islanders the most proportionately. It is empty rhetoric to claim that the impact on low-income Islanders was considered. The 10 points are expressed as, "increase, enhance, continue to..." They contain few figures, goals, targets or hard facts. This is why the term "poverty reduction" is inadequate and why the P.E.I. government needs to use the more visionary term, 'poverty eradication'.
Dr. Christine Saulnier and economist Angella MacEwan of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) Halifax did two background papers on the cost of poverty to P.E.I. in cooperation with the MacKillop Centre and Poverty Bites. They found that poverty is costing P.E.I. $315 million per year and that $40 million is in health costs. Lower-income status has been found to account for 33 - 40 per cent of hospitalization rates in Canada. One study estimates that an increase of $1,000 per year would lead to nearly 10,000 fewer chronic conditions, and 6,600 fewer disability days every two weeks. Crime costs are a smaller amount at four per cent or $13.9 million, compared to the government plan's claim that poverty causes high crime rates, a claim that further stereotypes low-income people.
In our background paper, We Cannot Linger, which we circulated to almost 2,000 Islanders, the MacKillop Centre and Poverty Bites outlined the main points of a poverty eradication strategy. They include: a thorough public consultation; focus on populations that suffer the most; sufficient resources to lift people out of poverty with clear legislated and measurable targets and timelines; accountability mechanisms to make sure the plan is carried out and reports are done frequently; an effective strategy to deal comprehensively with the multiple dimensions and root causes of poverty and homelessness; measures put in place with the goal of increasing income through eradication of low wages, greater assistance to those who can't work, enhancement of social programs and public goods; a whole government approach with overarching goals, co-ordinated by a senior cabinet minister who is ultimately responsible for achieving those goals; and reporting annually to the legislature.
The government 'plan' states that "poverty goes well beyond social justice," listing effects on families, increased health costs, lower educational levels, high rates of crime and lower economic output. These are not "beyond social justice"; they are aspects of a society that lacks social justice.
The 'plan' is supposed to last three years. We can't linger that long. It needs to be sent back with a big F for failure and a new target needs to be set immediately for an effective poverty eradication strategy. The saying that justice delayed is justice denied may apply to the courts, but it also applies here. Rights delayed to citizens are also rights denied.
Mary Boyd is a member of the P.E.I. Coalition for a Poverty Eradication Strategy.