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.
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.
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.
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. ]