On August 21, 2018, the Government of Canada released its first Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS), detailing its plan to help struggling Canadians. The result of years of advocacy from many individuals and groups, this strategy seeks to address the fact that 3.7 million Canadians live in poverty.
Here’s what you need to know:
Canada finally has an Official Poverty Line
For years, Canada has used three low-income measures in lieu of a poverty line, leading to confusion about the actual number of Canadians living in poverty.
The Official Poverty Line will be based on the cost of a basket of goods and services estimating a basic standard of living. This is encouraging, as it is the only measure based on the actual cost of living.
The Government sets targets on poverty reduction
The PRS set two poverty-reduction targets: the first, to reduce poverty by 20 per cent from 2015 levels by 2020, and the second, to reduce it by 50 per cent by 2030. It is important to note, however, that even if the government meets its 2020 mark, ten per cent of Canadians will still remain below the poverty line.
Meeting these targets will be a tall order. The government estimates the $22 billion it will have spent on poverty reduction from 2016-2019 (examples include the Canada Child Benefit, the Canada Workers Benefit and the National Housing Strategy) will pull 650,000 Canadians out of poverty by 2019, but to achieve a 20 per cent reduction, that number will need to grow to 900,000 by 2020. Disappointingly, the PRS did not announce any new funding, so the next federal budget—the last before the election—will need to include significant investments in poverty reduction.
Food security will be one of the measured indicators
The PRS includes a plan to evaluate progress by measuring of a variety of indicators—including food security. This is important because, while low income is the main determinant of poverty, focusing only on income will not give us a complete understanding of the pernicious effects of poverty in Canada.
The government will create a public dashboard that will show Canadians what kind of progress it is making on issues that paint a much clearer picture, such as food security, housing, chronic homelessness, and health care.
A National Advisory Council on Poverty will be created
The public will have a chance to feed into the creation of a National Advisory Council on Poverty. This council will advise the government on poverty reduction and table annual reports in Parliament to track progress and keep the government accountable.
While there are few details on this council, it is crucial it remain at arm’s length from government in order to be able to openly hold the government to account if targets are not being met.
Poverty reduction will be enshrined into law
Legislation will be passed to entrench the Official Poverty Line, the poverty-reduction targets, and the National Advisory Council on Poverty into law. While this is encouraging, as it makes it much more difficult for future governments to ignore the PRS, the fact that no consequences have been announced should current and future governments fail to meet these targets is concerning.
The PRS is an important first step. The identification of targets will allow civil society organizations and people with lived experience of poverty to hold the government accountable should it fail to meet them. The dashboard of indicators provides an unprecedented level of transparency and a more well-rounded picture of the state of poverty in Canada.
However, these steps forward should not be excuses for inaction. The lack of new funding, the 2030 date (at minimum three election cycles away), and the absence of consequences if targets are not met suggest urgency around poverty reduction may not be top of mind. As a result, Community Food Centres Canada will keep the pressure on the federal government and will call on our supporters to rally around important policy asks we are developing to help meet the poverty-reduction targets, sooner, rather than later. We need to now focus our full attention on the next budget as it will send a huge signal on how serious the government is on addressing the scourge of poverty that still stalks far too many Canadians.
It remains to be seen what the PRS will do to reduce poverty in Canada over the long term, and whether this and future governments will have the political courage to uphold this commitment. The new level of transparency, the introduction of legislation, and this government’s establishment of important supports, such as the Canada Child Benefit, create a roadmap for change. But we will need to be vigilant in ensuring government meets its targets and continues to move in the direction of eradicating poverty entirely.