Op-Ed: Premiers must 'make poverty history'

by LAUREL ROTHMAN AND PETER BLEYER

Last month's "Make Poverty History" concerts brought critical attention to the role of governments in tackling poverty at home and abroad. But those events were just the beginning.

After the music stops, our actions will determine the seriousness of our commitment to making a difference.

As Canada's premiers hold their annual gathering this week, we remind them that they, too, have a major role in the campaign to make poverty history — and it begins in the premiers' own backyards.

Understandably, issues related to federal-provincial funding and collaboration will dominate the agenda. After all, issues of fiscal capacity and federal-provincial lack of co-operation have been at the heart of why the fight against child poverty in Canada has often seemed stalled.

The good news is that in recent years, federal and provincial governments have made a good start on addressing child poverty: stronger child benefits, a new deal on quality child care and commitments to new affordable housing.

The not-so-good news is that there's a great deal of work left to do in these areas and in bolstering a labour market that is simply not producing enough good jobs that allow families to thrive, or even survive.

The situation is actually getting worse despite a growing economy. The most recent numbers from Statistics Canada show that the child poverty rate is growing again. More than 1 million children — nearly one in six — live in families experiencing poverty. Most of those families are working but still cannot make ends meet.

We are seeking an inspired effort by the premiers. Instead of the usual finger-pointing, here's an opportunity to place children at the heart of a pitch for a renewed partnership.

The premiers should agree that in return for increased, sustained federal funding, they will be accountable for investing in social programs that will reduce poverty.

But the crucial message for the premiers this year is not simply about more cash in the form of a blank cheque.

The Canada Social Transfer, the current vehicle through which the federal government sends money to the provinces for social programs, can and should be a driver of community programs and income supports that promote social inclusion in Canada.

In return for new funds, provinces and territories should pledge to work with communities and non-governmental organizations to ensure targeted funds can be accounted for and are transparent. This can be done by separating the funds for post-secondary education, early childhood education and care and social services, for example, into individual envelopes.

Ultimately, Canadians want to know that social policy is making a difference. That provinces and the federal government are guided by shared principles that ensure, for example,an opportunity for every child in Canada to succeed. That funds for early childhood education and care are used to support high quality services for families.

That funding for post-secondary education helps to make university and college education more accessible, especially for low-income students. That families on social assistance can live in dignity and that new affordable housing units are being built.

Building a nation in which children thrive is the surest basis for a high level of health and well-being and a strong foundation for sustainable economic prosperity.

Now that is something that governments from coast to coast to coast, and across all jurisdictions, should be able to rally around.

Premiers, this year, let's put a "first call" on the nation's resources for Canada's families and children.


Laurel Rothman is the national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada coalition striving to end child and family poverty. Peter Bleyer is president of Canadian Council on Social Development.

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