Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Budget should, but won't, tackle poverty

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My colleagues and I are pitching for a budget Tuesday that prioritizes reducing poverty and inequality. We expect the pitch will be met with a predictable mix of yawns, eye rolls, nods of agreement and indifference.

What we say won't make much difference, because the budget is written; spending and revenue decisions have been made. But we will continue to say it anyway in an effort to raise awareness of how critical these problems have become for all Manitobans.

Whether we want to believe it or not, the effects of poverty are very real across our province, and they are taking a social and economic toll on us all. For example, pockets of poverty exist throughout the city, but it is most concentrated and deeply entrenched in the inner city and in the North End, and has been for many decades.

This persistence of poverty has led many to feel hopeless and to turn to strategies of survival that sometime include bad choices. The effects of poverty include hopelessness and despair that often lead to ill health, violence, addictions, suicide, and the list goes on.

The province and others invest in a number of excellent community initiatives that do exceptionally important work. These organizations provide opportunities for people, and this helps to minimize the despair. But it is also true many people do not have the basic foundations to take full advantage of the opportunities that are provided.

The poorest Manitobans are often forced to move regularly, sometimes crowding in with family and friends. They often need most of their household income to pay their rent, leaving little for food and other basics.

Poverty will not go away on its own, and we cannot escape the damage it leaves behind. Our failure to invest what is required is creating insurmountable problems that affect us all. Most people living in poverty manage to overcome the obstacles but many do not.

Many kids don't bother to go to school because they can't see past the immediate crisis in their lives, and it is hard to think about the future when you don't know where your next meal will come from or where you will sleep that night.

It is not uncommon for these children to drop out of school, turn to drugs, have children when they are still children themselves, or succumb to the pressure and allure of street-gang life. Sure, we can blame it on parents or somebody else, but what good does this do?

These problems will not be resolved by the good work of food banks, soup kitchens and after-school programs. These supports are important, but without adequately investing in the basics, we are spinning our wheels. There are many things government can and must do. They all require considerable public investment and a rethinking of how we redistribute wealth.

Here is one thing we would like to see in this year's budget.

Safe, stable, affordable housing is an essential foundation. The government has been making progress in this area by creating more social housing, but it has yet to ensure the poorest Manitoba households, most of whom live in private-sector housing, have sufficient income to pay their rent. People receiving social assistance receive allowances far below the cost of housing. The government should increase the allowance so the poorest Manitobans receive a housing allowance of 75 per cent of the median market rent. Recent government estimates show this would cost less than $20 million annually. Sound like a lot? It's not, when compared to the province's $11 billion in spending last year and it goes directly back into the economy.

The cost to government could be offset by a slight tax increase on the incomes of the highest-earning Manitobans -- the one per cent earning more than $150,000 per year.

What can we expect on Tuesday?

We can expect to see a safe budget that will include a little something for everyone. It will include small measures to appease the middle class -- just enough to make us feel all is good in the world.

A few concessions will be made to keep the business community from crying "socialist" and there will be a little bit left over to keep the pesky poor people from revolting.

And just to make us all feel really safe, the minister of justice has already assured us the government will spend a ton on new jails -- exactly the wrong kind of housing program.

On budget day, we will gather at the legislative building with a glimmer of hope and a healthy dose of skepticism. None of us is likely to be thrilled with what we see, but two things are for certain. We won't see a budget that will make a significant dent in poverty in 2012. And we'll be back next year doing this all over again.


Shauna MacKinnon is the director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 A16

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