Poverty-reduction plan smart economics

November 25, 2008

“Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will have food for a lifetime.”

So goes the saying that has been used to describe the problems with charity (“ handouts”) and to illustrate why there is a need for a “hand up” instead.

It is interesting that our governments increasingly rely on charities to help people who are in hardship and need additional support: food banks and soup kitchens for food, emergency shelters for housing, other family members to help with eldercare, neighbours to help with child care, etc.

While charity can help in the short run, we know that handouts aren’t long run solutions. But, we also know that teaching people to fish doesn’t help if there is nowhere for them to go fishing. Why not go a step further and enable more people to actually own the pond and ensure that the pond is healthy and sustainable?

Study after study has shown that the root causes of poverty are often about a loss of control over the means for people to pay for what they need. Those most vulnerable to living in poverty face barriers that make it difficult to enter or re-enter the labour market and make a good living.

There is so much untapped potential and many lost opportunities in this province. Half of the Aboriginal population is not included in the labour force. Similarly, people with disabilities are often unable to find a job despite qualifications, skills and willingness to work.

It is not surprising that some in these communities have to turn to the government for income assistance. People with disabilities need workplaces that are accessible, and they need assistance to pay for what are basic necessities for them such as a wheelchair or homecare.

As a result of insufficient financial support and gaps in services, we find a disproportionate number of Aboriginal people, African Nova Scotians and people with mental disabilities and addictions unable to access secure affordable housing or to purchase and prepare their own nutritional food.

Unattached individuals, single mothers and youth aged 15 to 24, face some of the highest levels of poverty in the province.

What’s more, finding a job -- any kind of job -- is not a cure-all solution for everyone deemed able to work who are living in poverty. After all, there is an increasing number of working poor in our province. But there are solutions.

Recent poverty statistics show that the province of Quebec has been able to cut its poverty rate in half in 10 years. This is surely something that we should be striving for in Nova Scotia.

How did they do it? Evidence points to strong economic growth with an increase in employment levels as critical factors. Quebec is not the only province that experienced this kind of growth in Canada, however.

Our own province has seen unemployment decline to its lowest point in over 30 years. The difference is that Quebec developed a set of policies that enables more people to take advantage of that growth and has ensured that the benefits are spread more evenly.

For example, the number of Quebec women aged 25 to 44 entering the labour market during this same period increased 10 points to 81.6%. These women were supported in their work effort, in part, by the introduction of Quebec’s universal child care program, which offers child care spaces for 30% of children at $7 a day. Compare that to Nova Scotia, where only approximately 9.6% of children have access to child care – and their parents pay up to $31 a day. By increasing access to affordable child care, household incomes in Quebec rose and so did public revenues. Poverty was alleviated and income taxes offset 40% of the costs of the program. That’s smart public policy.

Many studies highlight the benefits children receive when they are cared for by paid caregivers with a formal education focused on preschool children’s development and learning. Ensuring families have access to this resource is a solution that would benefit everyone.

Premier Macdonald’s mantra is that his government will not run a deficit under any circumstance – which is looking very much like yesterday’s thinking, given that a number of well-respected bank economists are saying the global economic meltdown may force governments to go into deficit, and that’s not so bad after all.

The Minister of Finance is suggesting instead of deficit there will be cuts, but they won’t be deep. Let’s be clear: If Nova Scotia’s economy takes a dip, the provincial poverty rate will increase as more people fall through the holes in our social safety net. Any cut affects the poorest among us most harshly, and it can have detrimental effects on the poor and on our society as a whole.

The latest Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia report, Hard Working Province: Is It Enough? shows the province missed an important opportunity to harness economic growth in ways that would have shared the fruits of Nova’s Scotia’s recent long run of economic growth with the majority of hard working Nova Scotians whose efforts contributed to that growth.

Instead, the province now faces a growing prosperity gap as workers experience a decline in their real earnings. Raising the minimum wage as the province has committed to do is a small step forward, but in itself, it will not be enough.

An October 2008 Environics poll shows the majority of Nova Scotians are looking to their government for leadership on poverty reduction – they would be proud to see our Premier lead the way.

Now, more than ever, it’s time to act. As GPI Atlantic warns, there is no cushion for Nova Scotians to fall back onto in the event of an economic downturn – most have not been able to save money and most have been shut out of the prosperity gains in this province. They face increasing debt loads and financial insecurity.

Nova Scotians are hard working, generous and compassionate. This does not mean that governments can continue to exploit these qualities.

As we face declining economic growth, a possible recession and increase in unemployment, the worst thing the Nova Scotian government could do is introduce cuts to public programs.

The province needs to act now to prevent more people from falling into poverty, the way other countries and provinces have succeeded in doing.

Those countries with low poverty rates do not focus social spending on last resort income assistance programs. They focus on investing in infrastructure and public programs that benefit everyone, including the poorest.

Investing in affordable housing and in universal child care and early childhood development makes a real difference in the drive to reduce poverty.

There is also a need to improve working conditions – the pond conditions for the person who has learned how to fish -- by strengthening labour standards and ensuring Nova Scotia truly is “the best place in Canada to live, work, do business, and raise families.”

There is also a need to strengthen employment equity initiatives and to address discrimination in the labour market experienced by women, African Nova Scotians, newcomers, Aboriginal people, and people with disabilities.

People living in rural communities face additional challenges.

We have a long way to go.

Last Saturday’s march and speak out against poverty suggests one good thing has come out of Nova Scotia’s poverty crisis: More community members and organizations seek to hold our governments accountable for their in/decisions.

Poverty reduction should be a priority because it is both achievable and cost-effective. As our provincial government decides its budget priorities for next year, it should remember that Nova Scotians will pay now or pay later for the costs of poverty. A plan to reduce poverty can increase incomes and well-being, and that pays for itself, today and tomorrow. That’s smart economics. And that’s what governments should be all about.

Christine Saulnier, PhD, Director, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia. An edited version of this editorial was published by the Chronicle-Herald (Halifax).