The shock of the 2012 federal budget is just setting in, but the repercussions will be felt for years to come. Although deemed "moderate," this budget has cut thousands of jobs and left a scar on our social welfare system. A particularly unsettling decision was to dismantle the National Council of Welfare (NCW), a renowned organization that offers in-depth information on poverty and also represents the needs of the poor in government.
Established in 1969 as an advisory group to the Minister of National Health and Welfare, the National Council of Welfare has played a crucial role in measuring the depth and breadth of poverty in Canada, linking citizens concerns about welfare and poverty with parliament. Specifically mandated to report to the minister, the NCW was unique in its research collection and reporting providing accurate pan-Canadian data that was used by various organizations, including Canada Without Poverty and Campaign 2000.
In contrast to a statement made by MP Kellie Leitch, the National Council of Welfare does not duplicate the activities of any other organization in the non-profit sector. As both Canada Without Poverty and Campaign 2000 have stated in a recent press release, the federal government's termination of funding for this poverty advisory group, with unprecedented statutory powers, actually undermines national efforts to combat poverty. Without the informed voice of committed citizens to complement the important data, how will a minister know that his/her decisions are responding to real needs? The loss of NCW is a blow to social policy work.
What other organization has the resources and central position to produce an annual, detailed analysis of social assistance, the program of last resort across the country, as well as regular reports on the root causes of poverty? Critical information that is part of a comprehensive bank of resources produced by the NCW and relied on by many civil society organizations.
Most recently, "The Dollars and Sense of Solving Poverty" report released in August 2011, opened the dialogue around an economic argument against poverty -- investing in poverty head-on would cost $12.9 billion, but keeping the status quo would cost the government almost double.
The loss of important information gathering will leave a noticeable gap in the current knowledge of poverty in Canada. Such substantive reporting on social wellbeing is necessary in order to not only identify the cross-Canada trends and emerging issues, but also to help map out regional needs and develop targeted solutions.
The recent Welfare Incomes 2009 report (the year most recent data is available) noted that Newfoundland was the only province to provide social assistance that reached the poverty line in one category: lone parents with one child. Setting a bar for other provinces and territories to aspire to, the welfare incomes reports provide accurate data that governments can't hide from.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, "The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much. It is whether we provide enough for those who have little."
With no federal poverty strategy, no official poverty measurement tools, and now, no Council of Welfare, how can we assess how we are doing? In the current economic climate where employment has yet to stabilize and rising costs leave many families scrambling to make ends meet, the loss of critical information makes governments less prepared to face challenges.
Instead of blinding the government to the reality of poverty and contributing to an evidence-free zone in Ottawa, we should be continuously updating social data and research -- just as we do with economic data and research -- to pave the way for solutions. Shutting down the National Council of Welfare is the wrong move.
Co-written by Laurel Rothman from Campaign 2000