It’s been seven years since the Ontario government announced its commitment to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent between 2008 and 2013.
That same year marked the beginning of the 2008-09 recession, which hit Ontario hard.
Yet even in the face of these struggles, data showed that early poverty reduction efforts were making a difference. By 2010, child poverty had fallen by 8.7 per cent.
But the full five years of data paint a far less sunny picture: Ontario ended its five-year strategy with the same child poverty rate as when it began in 2008. In 2013 — the most recent year of available data — 20 per cent of Ontario’s children lived in poor families.
Ontario can learn a few lessons from the experience of that first strategy.
1. Poverty reduction strategies can work:
It is worth noting that the decrease in child poverty in those first two years transpired during the worst of the global recession.
Without a strategy in place, child poverty in Ontario would have undoubtedly been worse during the recession. In fact, provinces such as British Columbia, where there is no poverty reduction strategy in place, saw an increase in child poverty during that same two-year time frame.
2. Poverty reduction requires steadfast commitment:
The first two years of the strategy worked because the province dedicated robust resources to make progress a reality. And the government of the day maintained its political resolve right through to the recession’s end (it waned shortly after).
The Ontario Child Benefit has proven to be a real workhorse: in 2009, the OCB was increased to a maximum of $1,100 annually per child in that year. By 2013, more than 530,000 families received a benefit worth a maximum of $1,210.
Raising the minimum wage in 2008, 2009, and 2010 — to $10.25 an hour by 2010 — also made a difference.
3. Commitments require steady funding to yield results:
By all accounts the government’s poverty reduction strategy was working, but in 2012, it went off course.
By budget time 2012, the political will to invest sufficient resources in poverty reduction had dissipated; the Drummond report was delivered and Ontario began a series of austerity measures — some of which remain in place today.
That year, a promised increase in the Ontario Child Benefit was postponed by one year.
The minimum wage was frozen at $10.25 an hour between 2010 and 2014.
Without a steady commitment to fund and implement these portfolios, the early progress in Ontario’s child poverty reduction strategy began to unravel and by 2013, child poverty again sat at 20 per cent.
4. Targets and timelines remain useful:
The government has (rightly) been criticized for failing to maintain its commitment to its own poverty reduction strategy.
But government targets and timelines remain useful. They help to measure progress and to ensure governments who lose their way refocus and recommit.
In 2014, the Wynne government recommitted to its child poverty reduction targets and introduced phase two of its poverty reduction strategy, broadening the scope to include a promise to reduce poverty for single adults and to eliminate chronic homelessness within a 10-year period (by 2025).
Has the government learned lesson #3? Early indications show a willingness to commit to bold and welcome targets, but will government ensure the resources and focus necessary to get the job done?
5. Having a federal partner in poverty reduction is a game-changer:
The Ontario government has been calling for the federal government to step up to the plate on poverty reduction for years. With the election of Trudeau’s Liberals, Wynne may have finally got her wish.
Trudeau’s mandate letter to the new Minister of Families, Children and Social Development sets the development of a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy as a top priority.
The new federal government’s pledge to implement the Canada Child Benefit while eliminating the Universal Child Care Benefit and the Canada child tax credit is predicted to help Ontario exceed its child poverty reduction target ahead of schedule.
Ontario will need its federal partner to do some of the heavy lifting when it comes to ending chronic homelessness and expanding affordable housing units as well.
Early signals from the new federal government heighten expectations that Ontario will be on solid footing to meet its phase two poverty reduction strategy commitments on schedule.
As long as that political will remains steadfastly in place.