POLITICS

Ottawa should use projected budget surpluses to fight poverty, group says

11/26/2013 01:46 EST | Updated 01/26/2014 05:59 EST
OTTAWA - Ottawa should funnel predicted multi-billion-dollar budget surpluses into helping Canadians who are struggling to make ends meet, an anti-poverty coalition said in a report released Tuesday.

Campaign 2000 said while there has been a slight drop in the country's child poverty rate since the 2008-2009 recession, 967,000 children and their families are still unable to fulfil their basic needs.

And more children lived in poverty in 2011 than in 1989, when the House of Commons unanimously resolved to end child poverty by 2000 — 14.3 per cent, up from 13.7 per cent, it said.

Based on recent budget projections, the federal government "can afford to spend" on programs that would help prevent children from depending on food banks and homeless shelters, the group said.

"Money is not lacking," the report read. "What may be lacking is political will to act and willingness to act on the evidence."

Laurel Rothman, the group's national co-ordinator, said there's been a lack of federal leadership when it comes to "putting some important social and economic priorities at the top."

"We know what needs to be done. This is a complex problem ... but we know, we've got lots of reports from governments, non-government organizations, academics, lots of insights from people who have experienced poverty," she said.

"If we ignore the costs of poverty then we consider that a mismanagement of the economy for which we're all going to pay in financial, social and emotional costs," she added.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said this month he expects a surplus of $3.7 billion in 2015-16. That figure is expected to grow to nearly $10 billion by 2018-19.

A spokesman for Minister of State for Social Development Candice Bergen defended the government's efforts to reduce child and family poverty in Canada.

"Since we took office, there are 225,000 fewer children in poverty than under the Liberals," Andrew McGrath said in an email.

"Our low-tax plan for jobs and growth is helping reduce poverty and increase the long-term prosperity for all Canadians."

New Democrats were quick to condemn both the governing Conservatives and the previous Liberals governments for their inaction on the issue.

"It's been over 20 years since Ed Broadbent's motion aimed to end child poverty unanimously passed the House of Commons, and yet successive Conservative and Liberal governments have failed to act on this promise. Canadians deserve better," said Jinny Sims, the NDP's employment and social development critic.

In its report, Campaign 2000 recommends drafting a national poverty-reduction plan, building a public child care system and expanding access to employment insurance, among other things.

It is also repeating its call for an enhanced child benefit for low-income families that would replace some cash payments and child tax benefits and credits offered to Canadian parents.

All but two provinces — British Columbia and Saskatchewan — have official plans to tackle poverty and Rothman said it's time the federal government took the lead.

"We know, in the provinces where there's commitment — particularly in Ontario, for example — they're committed by law to report to the legislature every year and to come up with a new plan every five years," she said.

"That means the issue cannot be swept under the carpet and quite frankly at the federal level we have nothing like that."

Campaign 2000 didn't compare child poverty rates across provinces, but the B.C. child and youth advocacy group First Call — which produced that province's poverty report — ranked them using Statistics Canada's 2011 low-income cutoffs before tax as a measure of poverty.

B.C. had the highest rate with 18.6, followed by Manitoba with 17.3.

Ontario was next with 13.6, then Nova Scotia with 13 and Quebec with 12.2.

Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan were nearly tied with 11.4 and 11.3 respectively.

New Brunswick had 10.5, Prince Edward Island 9.5 and Alberta 9.4.

-by Paola Loriggio in Toronto