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Ask yourself two questions while reading Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy

August 21, 2018

Canada’s first “Poverty Reduction Strategy” will only prove useful if citizens take ownership, and use it to hold governments to account for reaching meaningful goals.

What is a “poverty reduction strategy”? How is it useful?

In one sense, it is surely actions taken, programs designed, monies spent. And that is how Opportunity for All — Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy begins: a list of policies, programs, and budgets that the government has undertaken, and for which politicians want to be given credit. The federal government can rightly claim that it has been pursuing a “poverty reduction strategy” from the day it was elected in October 2015.

But for citizens, whether poor, rich, or middle class, this is not good enough. A poverty reduction strategy must also be a clearly stated set of priorities that reflect our concerns; priorities that are paired with measurable targets allowing us to plot a path to somewhere better.

This collection of targets, timelines, and indicators is also a “poverty reduction strategy” because it gives citizens a way to hold governments to account, to focus attention not just on money spent—our money after all—but also on the connection between actions and outcomes. Credit is due, not when budgets are spent, but when outcomes we care about are efficiently and effectively achieved.

The federal government’s just released document also offers a strategy in this sense. It defines for the first time an official indicator of the rate of income poverty, setting clear targets and timelines to lower the fraction of Canadians living in income poverty, and offering three sets of complementary signposts recognizing that poverty is about more than just money.

Click on image to enlarge

I am an outsider who was invited inside: a professor then at the University of Ottawa given the opportunity to work in the Deputy Minister’s office during 2017 as the Economist in Residence, and as a member of the team of public servants supporting Minister Duclos’s efforts in building Canada’s first official poverty reduction strategy.

Professor Sen’s book is on the top of my reading list when I think about poverty as an academic.

In my life as an academic, I have developed a great respect for the ideas of the Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen. One of Professor Sen’s more influential books is called “Development as Freedom,” and I believe he used the word “Development” in two ways: to refer to economic growth and prosperity, but also to refer to personal growth and well-being.

We “develop” as individuals and citizens when we have the freedom to choose the life we value.

This, it seems to me, is the task to which Canadians expect their political leaders to be devoted: to listen to the projects that citizens hold dear, to recognize the barriers they face, and to work hard toward lightening this load, removing those barriers, and developing their freedom to choose.

In my year as a public servant, I witnessed a process of unparalleled consultation, with communities and front-line workers, with stakeholders and researchers, and most importantly with citizens who have lived in poverty, who have escaped it, or who feel insecure as a result of it.

The Minister clearly fostered the opportunity to hear the projects and concerns citizens hold dear. What they told him gives Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy its purpose.

A federal government consultation of citizens with lived experience of poverty in six Canadian communities is on the top of my reading list as a public servant. Click on image to download the report.

This cannot be just about numbers, indicators, targets: whether or not Statistics Canada tells us that some statistic took an uptick or a dip a year and a half ago? Whether a certain percentage of 15 year olds pass some sort of literacy test? Or whether a young household has put a bit of money aside?

Rather, it is about whether Canadians have the resources, monetary or otherwise, to live life with dignity and to participate normally in society; about whether the young have a solid education that will open doors for them; about whether those doors are open free of discrimination so that everyone’s skills and talents are recognized; about whether families are confident about the future, knowing they can deal with the challenges that tomorrow will surely bring.

Dignity, opportunity, resilience.

These three words summarize the concerns the Minister heard. They reflect the moral purpose that motivates a poverty reduction strategy, that underlies the indicators and targets, and that ultimately makes the strategy useful.

But Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy will prove its use with time, it will have staying power, if the same spirit of consultation continues and fosters both a sense of ownership among Canadians, and an ongoing sense of urgency among this and future governments.

Our politicians will need to continue listening, and we will need to continue voicing our concerns using the measuring rods in this document, but also continually refining and adapting them to better reflect what it means to fully participate in an ever-changing Canadian community.

[ The text of this post is slightly adapted from the foreward that I wrote to Opportunity for all: Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy.

I was the Economist in Residence at Employment and Social Development Canada during the 2017 calendar year, working in the Deputy Minister’s office as a member of the team of public servants helping to develop Canada’s First Poverty Reduction Strategy. During 2018 I continued to serve as a part-time advisor in the Deputy Minister’s office on this and other files. Though this post is also published as a foreward to Canada’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, the views expressed in both versions are entirely my own, and in particular should not be interpreted as reflecting the positions of Employment and Social Development Canada, nor of the Minister and his staff. ]

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One Comment
  1. David Cadman permalink

    This will be familiar to many: Justice not only must be done, but seen to be done!
    In terms of Poverty or Social Mobility, this means that the efforts that are presented
    as policy, must also have correlating results that can be seen by all in their daily lives.

    For the past 18-20 months I have been researching future scientific trends related to
    longevity. From that research, it is becoming clear that the divide that forming between
    people is becoming wider. Those that can access the future and those that are being
    left behind. The Social Mobility aspect of the changes that are happening in the world.
    In Canada we, as a group, are in an enviable position, but there are forces that would
    set that divide in concrete, and even widen it. This is not political, but a social phenomena,
    where those at the top, are pulling the ladder up, to restrict access to the future. This is
    seen most clearly in the Funding of our health care systems, and in the Social Safety Net.
    Vast sums are spent in promoting outdated measures to ensure the health of those whose
    economic well being is based on old technology and resources. While at the expense of the
    future technologies and resources that we as a nation, will need in the future. This is not just
    a function of the policies of the present governments, federal and provincial, but hearken back
    to previous governments post 2000. Retrenchment and the austerity budgets of the past and
    their long term effects have not been redressed in the present. this is having the effect of
    placing a ball and chain on the part of the Canadian population that can least afford it.

    On a personal note, I’m one step away from living in poverty or the inability to keep up
    with the social mobility that is required to live in today’s society. If we as a nation, are going
    to keep up, then something has to change, from the top down, by funding the bottom segment
    of society, such that it can live life at the median level and above, that is set by the rest of
    society. As I said at the beginning, but in another way, Results must be seen by the people
    the Policies are meant to help. Without that, it is just so much Wind Song, the eating of the air
    full of promise.

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