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This article was published 24/11/2016 (244 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Manitobans concerned about poverty hoped the Progressive Conservative government’s throne speech would reference the creation of a comprehensive strategy to address this complex issue affecting 130,000 Manitobans. After all, the new government’s first budget had promised a plan by 2017.
Poverty-reduction advocates wanted the government to set a goal to reduce poverty and then tell us what it will do to achieve that goal by outlining a comprehensive plan. This way we can evaluate progress and hold government accountable for its share of the results.
But when the throne speech was read on Monday to outline the government’s priorities, there was no mention of targets and timelines providing a vision for poverty reduction. Nor was there any mention of the promised comprehensive plan to address poverty.
While the throne speech did highlight some key areas that must be addressed in a plan (such as social assistance, child care, mental health and addiction), there was little to suggest that action in these areas will focus on reducing poverty.
If a poverty-reduction lens is not applied to these policy areas, government action may end up exacerbating the problem. It seems the new government is taking a "trickle-down" approach to addressing poverty. This has been proven ineffective.
We need targeted efforts through a comprehensive plan that includes evidence-based solutions informed by the experience of people who have lived in poverty.
Community organizations have provided the government with a blueprint for such a plan, with 50 recommendations in targeted areas, including food security, child care, income supports, housing, education, health, training and jobs. The View From Here was endorsed by more than 100 groups and should form the basis of a provincial plan.
Last week, Make Poverty History Manitoba launched a campaign calling on the government to ensure its poverty-reduction plan featured an increase to the Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) basic-needs budget. This budget is given to people on social assistance to cover the costs of necessities other than rent. It has not increased in over a decade, while costs for food and other essentials have skyrocketed.
The coalition’s proposed increase would bring the total incomes of all Manitobans up to at least 75 per cent of the poverty line.
The poverty line, which is the income level needed to purchase a bare level of basic necessities, is just $17,469 for a single person living in Winnipeg.
Unfortunately, many Manitobans relying on EIA are living far below the poverty line despite investments in supports such as Rent Assist, which has made shelter more affordable in recent years.
For instance, the income of a single adult on EIA is equal to 53 per cent of the poverty line, including all federal and provincial benefits. This means they have only half the amount needed to pay for basic necessities such as food, shelter, clothing and transportation. Persons with disabilities make up more than half of the EIA caseload. A single person on disability has a total income equal to 68 per cent of the poverty line.
When EIA rates are too low, they perpetuate ongoing reliance on the system. Everyday survival becomes an all-consuming effort, leaving people with few resources to look for work or improve their education and training.
Families with children live closer to the poverty line, due in large part to recently enhanced federal child benefits. A single parent with two children on EIA is at 92 per cent of the poverty line, while a two-parent family with two children is at 87 per cent — still well below what is needed to raise a family.
The throne speech has prioritized EIA reforms "that will improve the circumstances of our youngest citizens." Much needs to be done to reduce child poverty. But in doing so, we must not leave behind single adults and people with disabilities who live in the deepest destitution. Ultimately we must lift all Manitobans out of poverty. In the short term, we must close the gap for those who are furthest behind.
The latest campaign proposal by Make Poverty History Manitoba — and endorsed by more than 100 organizations across the province — would deal with crisis levels of deep poverty for about 26,000 single adults and persons with disabilities by bringing their incomes to at least 75 per cent of the poverty line.
For too long, the province has taken a holiday on indexing the EIA basic needs budget to the cost of living. Catching up will cost approximately $52 million annually.
Poverty reduction requires investments, but these make economic sense. People with very low incomes spend the additional dollars they gain in our local economy.
Runaway costs in services correlated with poverty such as Health, Justice and Child and Family Services are unsustainable. Poverty limits opportunity and health. It makes people more susceptible to disease and shortens lifespans. Poverty becomes a cycle that is difficult to escape and too often becomes intergenerational. An alternative is possible. However, it must start with a plan.
Kirsten Bernas and Josh Brandon sit on the steering committee of Make Poverty History Manitoba. For more information, visit www.knowpoverty.ca.