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Pallister ups the ante on anti-poverty front

NDP says it's making good progress on problem

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Protesters at the legislature in January demand increase in rental allowance for those on assistance.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS ARCHIVES Enlarge Image

Protesters at the legislature in January demand increase in rental allowance for those on assistance. Photo Store

A new government report says the province is making good progress curbing poverty, but poverty advocates say the measures are flawed and progress is too slow.

Those advocates got an unlikely ally Thursday in Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister, who reiterated his party's anti-poverty policies and said he is open to more radical solutions, such as a guaranteed annual income.

The annual report on Manitoba's new poverty-reduction strategy, released quietly last week, shows improvement in most of the 20 indicators the province uses to gauge success. High school graduation rates are up, there were 5,000 fewer low-income people in 2011 than a decade earlier and there have been improvements in affordable housing, teen-pregnancy rates and child-care spaces.

But the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg says the province is using a flawed measure for low income. It says 14 per cent of Manitobans live in poverty, not 11.5 per cent. And measures such as the minimum wage or average weekly earnings are too broad to offer a targeted picture of the poor.

The good-news report is at odds with front-line agencies such as Siloam Mission and Winnipeg Harvest, which consistently report an increase in demand.

Five per cent of Manitoba's citizens used a food bank in 2012, Pallister said Thursday, the highest percentage in the country. "That's a reality we just shouldn't accept," he said.

The Tories have promised to raise the welfare housing rate, now at $285 per month, to 75 per cent of median market rents within the first year of forming a government. That is by far the top policy change welfare experts have asked for in recent years, saying many poor Manitobans are going hungry to make rent.

The Tories would also increase the basic personal tax exemption to match the Canadian average, currently $10,700. That's the threshold at which people begin to pay income taxes and it represents a 20 per cent increase over Manitoba's current basic personal exemption. That measure is less popular among poverty advocates because the costs are significant -- more than $100 million a year -- but the benefits accrue to all taxpayers, not only low-income ones.

Pallister said he hopes more new anti-poverty policies will emerge from this weekend's Progressive Conservative party convention in Brandon.

Housing and Community Development Minister Kerri Irvin-Ross said the province has done much of what Pallister has promised, including increasing the basic personal exemption.

In recent budgets, the exemption has typically increased by about $200. Pallister is proposing a roughly $2,000 increase during his first term in government.

Irvin-Ross said the province has also invested in affordable housing and said a program for rewarding work has helped move 10,000 people off welfare.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A8

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