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This article was published 9/5/2018 (829 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Governments rarely suppress good news.
Let’s face it, most — federal, provincial, municipal, whatever — are normally drowning in bad news. So, when something good happens, you can expect a rush to start tapping out a self-congratulatory news release.
That is the way things normally happen. But not always, it seems.
On Monday, in question period, Families Minister Scott Fielding stunned members of the legislature when he blurted out statistics showing Manitoba had made more progress than any other province in the country in reducing child poverty.
For many years, it’s been accepted Manitoba shamefully led the nation in children living in poverty. That reality has long been a volatile political issue, dogging whichever party was in power.
However, according to Fielding, Manitoba has gone from dead last to "fifth best," in terms of the number of children living in poverty. "That’s a dramatic improvement," Fielding told the chamber.
Oddly, the minister did not reveal additional positive data contained within Statistics Canada’s 2016 Canadian Income Survey.
According to the survey, Manitoba was also one of only four provinces to experience significant increases in employment income, and one of only three to experience increases in after-tax income. Manitoba now has the fourth-best median employment income in the country, behind only Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
Overall, it means Manitoba experienced the second-largest drop in the number of low-income families and the largest reduction in children living in poverty.
For a government that has promised to make Manitoba "the most-improved province in Canada," this is gold. However, no official effort was made to promote the Statistics Canada findings (which were released in mid-March).
Why did the Tory government wait so long to broadcast this important, positive story?
A likely explanation: Fielding knows an important — and unavoidable — fact about this report.
It is very hard to connect any large positive trend, such as poverty reduction, to any specific government policy. Fielding agreed the survey is just a snapshot — one that was taken over a single year in which the current government was in power for only eight months or so.
"I don’t really want to oversell this," Fielding said. "We hope that we influenced (the positive trend) with some of the things we’ve done. But I know it’s easy for government to claim credit for everything good that happens. I didn’t want to do that."
Trying to nail down a cause for the reduction in overall poverty and increase in median incomes won’t be easy. Shauna MacKinnon, an associate professor of urban and inner-city studies at the University of Winnipeg, touched briefly on the income survey data in a May 1 op-ed article for the Free Press. She challenged the notion that tax cuts, on their own, do much to help people living in poverty.
MacKinnon said there is no doubt the data shows a positive trend, but trying to figure out the forces behind that trend is a confounding challenge. Particularly with this survey, which is a new addition to Statistics Canada’s roster of regular economic reports.
"It’s only one year of data," she said. "We just don’t know what’s going on here. It will be very interesting to see next year’s report to see if the trend continues."
Factors likely to have contributed to Manitoba’s measurable reduction in poverty likely start with increases in government support for families, including the enhanced federal Canadian Child Benefit. The income survey noted median income from government transfers increased to $7,400 in 2016, from $5,800 the year previous — a significant boost for lower-income families.
However, MacKinnon said, general economic conditions also likely played a role. Shortly after the Tories took power in the spring of 2016, Manitoba reported some of the strongest job-creation numbers in a decade.
Fielding also pointed to Rent Assist, a program that provides additional support to people renting accommodation in private buildings. Shortly after taking power, the Tories changed some of the program’s deductibles — a move the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg calculated would provide lower subsidies to more than 7,000 recipients.
Fielding said the lower payments to some recipients allowed the government to extend assistance to 3,000 additional people — a net benefit.
MacKinnon said it will take a few more years of data to establish to figure out exactly why things have improved on the anti-poverty front. In the meantime, activists are hoping this small bit of good news does not convince any government to cut back on support programs.
"This (data) does not mean there aren’t people who need help. The government has to continue to provide that help," she said.
Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.
Updated on Wednesday, May 9, 2018 at 10:42 AM CDT: Changes headline
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