The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction is a multi-sectoral coalition of more than 350 provincial and Toronto-based organizations and individuals working to eliminate poverty.

The Network came together because poverty reduction makes social and economic sense and because poverty reduction is possible. It starts with a plan. At a gathering of 350 low-income people, anti-poverty activists, policy experts, and advocates in October 2008, the 25 in 5 Network produced Five Tests for Success of Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

How does the government’s plan perform against the Five Tests?

TEST # 1: A target to reduce poverty in Ontario by 25% within the next five years.

By adopting a target to reduce child and family poverty by 25% in the next 5 years, the government has set an achievable target and timeline that provides direction for policy implementation, both now and in the future. A 25% reduction means reducing child poverty from 12% to 9%, lifting 90,000 kids out of poverty. This commitment is the most ambitious and targeted plan in Canada today. We consider this to be a start, not an end, to setting targets. We expect that as progress is made on child poverty, we will also turn our sights on all other Ontarians, and build new targets for all our population. This target and timeline would be the first step in a longer-term plan to reduce poverty by 50% in 10 years, with an eye to making Ontario Canada’s first poverty-free zone.

TEST # 2: A clear way to measure progress – a solid lead income measure combined with a set of additional indicators.

We can’t reduce poverty unless we agree on how to measure it. But until now, no government in Canada has adopted any of the many commonly-used measurement tools. With the adoption of the Low Income Measure (LIM, 50% of the media income), we now have a firm basis for measuring and tracking progress on reducing poverty in Ontario. LIM is the major international standard for poverty measurement, which means we can track our progress in relation to other countries around the world. We will also continue to call for the development of indicators required to ensure progress for population-specific groups, like newcomers, racialized groups, women, Aboriginal people, and people with disabilities.

TEST #3: Policy specifics

Social assistance review: Ontario’s welfare system

Today the government announced it will undertake a review of social assistance with the goal of reducing barriers and increasing opportunity. The review will seek to better align social assistance and other key programs with a particular focus on people trying to move into employment from social assistance. 25 in 5 is going to work with our government to immediately launch Ontario’s review of social assistance as was announced in today’s poverty reduction strategy – because the changes to social assistance that were implemented in the 1990s are out of date for today’s economic and political reality.

Too many Ontarians receiving social assistance face arbitrary rules that deny them help when they need it. Too many have been left to live in harsh and desperate situations. Too many who want to get ahead are held back by a system that is good at making rules but bad at keeping up with the times. If we don’t act fast to fix our welfare system, it will not weather an economic recession, and we will all pay the price for it.

As an initial step, signaling the direction of the government’s promised social assistance review, the plan will immediately change three rules which function as barriers for people on social assistance. First, the plan pledges to fully exempt the earnings of any person on social assistance participating in post-secondary education. The second extends the upfront child care benefits to allow parents to continue their participation in employment and employment assistance activities. The third change is an extension of the time to request internal reviews of social assistance decisions from ten to thirty days.

The government has also committed to continuing to make progress on improving the incomes of low-income Ontarians including those on social assistance. This will help to make our social assistance system more humane, but transforming the system is also about making sure the system is there for Ontarians to develop the skills and vocational training they need to escape poverty permanently. This isn’t just about tinkering with a few rules; it’s about re-imagining a system that helps Ontarians transition from tough times to economic independence.

Housing review: Bring affordable housing back to Ontario

One of the most positive moves from today’s announcement is that the 10-year, 60 billion dollar infrastructure plan scheduled to be implemented in 2009 will include social housing. One of the most basic elements of building success is to ensure everyone can wake up in a safe home that’s affordable and doesn’t eat up your food budget.

The poverty reduction plan includes 500 million in loans for social housing infrastructure and 100 million dollars for social housing repairs announced originally announced in March 2008. It also includes a new commitment of 5 million dollars annually in the rent bank program. The plan also referred to the inclusion of social housing in the 10-year, 60 billion dollar program starting in 2009. While we can acknowledge these as important initiatives, we should continue to press for new affordable housing units in the order of 8,000 units annually in the poverty reduction strategy.

As well, we should continue to maintain pressure on the importance of a housing benefit for all low-income people in order to deal with affordability as well as the supply issue in social housing. 25 in 5 is also going to work with our government to ensure Ontario’s social housing review brings about affordable housing – and this cannot happen fast enough. We will be pushing for action now on a package that is about new affordable units, repairs of existing stock and a new housing benefit.

Labour market initiatives

Turning the corner on working poverty means recognizing that hard work must lead to a decent living.

  • The strategy will invest $10 million to hire new employment standards enforcement officers. They will conduct investigations to ensure that vulnerable workers will get the money they are owed.
  • The government is committing to legislation to better regulate temporary agencies to make sure that people working are treated fairly
  • The government committed to continuing to make progress on the minimum wage, which will reach $10.25 by 2010.

The next steps for this plan are to develop a “Good Jobs Strategy”, to continue to raise the minimum wage and recognize the critical role of unionization in protecting good jobs.

Early learning and child care

It is positive that early learning has a prominent place on this government’s agenda. Today’s announcement leaves a placeholder for the important work of Charles Pascal to recommend ways for the expansion of early learning in Ontario and thereby freeing up resources to expand quality child care. But it will be key to act quickly on implementation of the recommendations.

Population specific action

Today’s plan recognizes that poverty does not impact every one of us in the same way. It proposes a number of “person-centred approaches” that will examine existing programs and services and their impact differently to different populations. Poverty hits certain communities a lot hard than others: Aboriginal people, racialized communities, newcomers, women and people with disabilities all disproportionately bear the impacts of poverty. It is regrettable that racialized communities are not explicitly mentioned in the strategy and we must continue to press for action in this area.

Community Initiatives

25 in 5 has promoted the importance of providing funding support to local community initiatives that will continue to engage people in the poverty reduction effort. We have specifically asked for a community opportunities fund and a community initiatives fund. Today’s announcement indicates an investment of $5 million annually in a Community Opportunities Fund to encourage neighbourhood revitalization through partnerships between local business, governments, volunteers, community agencies and most importantly, local residents.

Federal partnership

Today’s announcement that Ontario intends to become a national leader in reducing the number of poor people in our province is a direct challenge to our federal government. There are now five provincial governments working to reduce poverty in their own jurisdictions. Today, we are laying down the gauntlet and saying to our federal government that Ontario needs you to come to the table. It’s time for our federal government to stop shadowboxing with the provinces.

TEST #4: Legislation and Accountability

Today’s plan takes many steps that are a critical foundation of accountability:

  • Legislation to bring the plan into law.
  • A continued role for the Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction supported by a Poverty Reduction Secretariat that brings all ministries together to drive implementation and track progress.
  • Annual public reporting on progress to date and continuing public consultation as the plan unfolds.
  • A role for people living in low income, grassroots leaders, and experts in ongoing consultations.

TEST #5: A commitment to a downpayment on poverty reduction in the 2009 budget

We now have assurances that poverty reduction will be a central feature in the next five provincial budgets. And we will be holding our government’s feet to the fire at each and every turn. But we also need investments now and today’s plan does not tell us what the first step will be. What we have today is a commitment to a floor of investments that we expect to continue to grow as we make progress on affordable housing, child care and social assistance.

Leading economists around the world, from Canada’s banks to the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, agree that the best way to get the economy moving is to stimulate demand, and the best way to stimulate demand is to get money into the pockets of low-income populations through already-established programs and mechanisms. The next chapter of this plan is to get to work on investments in the next budget. This will be the next test of the government’s resolve on its poverty reduction strategy.