During the recent provincial election campaign, Premier Campbell was repeatedly asked by reporters and citizens if a re-elected Liberal government would bring in a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines. On each occasion, he said no. Instead, the premier insisted his goal is "to have the lowest unemployment rate that we can," because "a job is the best social program."
It's true that job creation is important to poverty reduction. The problem, however, is that most poor British Columbians have already taken his advice. They are employed, and sometimes have two jobs, but are working in the low wage workforce where they and their families remain stuck below the poverty line. Record low unemployment over the past few years did not change the fact that BC (using any measure) has the highest poverty rate in Canada. So clearly, a focus on employment alone is insufficient, especially in a recession.
Consider this: only about 3.5 per cent of British Columbians rely on social assistance for their income -- but the latest (pre-recession) poverty rate is 11 per cent. So while a comprehensive poverty reduction plan requires improved access to welfare and higher welfare rates, it must also enhance the earnings of those already employed in the low wage workforce. That's why, among other things, the premier must move off his refusal to increase the minimum wage. A plan must also improve the public services all low-income people rely upon, such as child care, access to social housing, and access to post-secondary education and training.
Prior to the May election, the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition called for a comprehensive provincial plan in an open letter to all political parties. The coalition's call won the endorsement of almost 300 organizations from around the province (see http://bcpovertyreduction.ca for the Open Letter and full list of signatories).
The public is solidly behind this call as well. A Mustel Group poll commissioned by the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition just before the May provincial election found that 79 per cent of British Columbians believe a poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines should be a priority for the new provincial government. British Columbians expect their government to take bold leadership on this issue.
A growing number of provinces across the country are implementing poverty reduction plans, but so far not BC. A week before BC's election, a new Poverty Reduction Act with concrete targets was passed by Ontario's legislature with unanimous all-party support. And Manitoba is the latest province to initiate a plan. Why is BC a laggard on this issue?
It is time for Premier Campbell to introduce a plan, and to designate a lead minister for poverty reduction with a cross-government mandate and secretariat, a common element of other provincial plans.
As our response to the economic crisis evolves, the government should make poverty reduction policies central to its stimulus strategy. Such policies will deliver the maximum stimulus bang for the buck. Low income families don't have the luxury of saving - when we put money in their pockets, they spend it, and mainly in the local economy.
Those jurisdictions that have chosen to focus on poverty reduction are getting results. In Newfoundland, the Conservative government of Danny Williams has made poverty reduction one of its overarching goals. Back in 2004, Newfoundland's poverty rate was the second highest in Canada after BC's. It is now 6.5 per cent, the third lowest in Canada. There is ample evidence that there is nothing inevitable about poverty in a society as wealthy as ours. If Gordon Campbell is looking for a worthy legacy, surely this is it.
Seth Klein is the BC Director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (www.policyalternatives.ca) and co-author of "A Poverty Reduction Plan for BC."