Ever since its creation by an act of Parliament in 1969, the National Council of Welfare has been the only federal agency with a mandate devoted exclusively to improving the lives of low-income Canadians.
The Harper government’s decision to scrap the Council in its 2012 budget was a cheap shot – in more ways than one – and a shot that will deprive Canadians of one more source of valuable research.
The Council’s work on the welfare system has been extraordinary. Its annual publication Welfare Incomes is the single authoritative source on that subject in Canada, and is used extensively both inside and outside government. The Council was a leader in the fight against provincial and territorial governments’ “clawing back” part of the federal Canada Child Tax Benefit from families on welfare.
But the Council has worked in many other areas as well. Its reports on child poverty and women in poverty are well known. It has published some of the most readable descriptions of public and private pension programs. It documented the many shortcomings of legal aid in Canada. A report on the justice system said poor people are most likely to be picked up by police, most likely to appear in court without adequate legal representation, and most likely to wind up serving time.
Also worth highlighting are the Council’s reports on child care and its importance to young families. One report came out after the truly perverse impacts on child care unveiled by the former Progressive Conservative government in 1988. Other Council reports followed the decision by the former Liberal government to reject proposals for a national child care program that the party itself had promoted in its 1993 Red Book election platform.
The Council, along with several other national social policy groups, also helped to expand the scope of social policy to include tax policy and its effects on low-income Canadians.
The National Council of Welfare was traditionally a great friend of opposition parties in Parliament, but came to be regarded a royal pain in the butt once a party formed a government. That wasn’t because the Council was anti-government by nature – just that governments of recent years had so many bad ideas about social policy and so few good ones.
In fact, members of the Council who make up the group’s board of directors are appointed by the federal cabinet and have often been close friends of the government of the day. That friendship, however, never compromised the work of the Council even once during my 13 years there as a staff member.
I was director of the Council in 1993, when the new Liberal cabinet started appointing members to replace Conservative appointees when their terms expired. I can’t recall a single instance where the overall direction of the Council or its specific policy proposals changed because of the change in government.
My own analysis was that Council members, regardless of any party affiliation, were committed first and foremost to the well-being of poor people. Many of them worked in social services and were well aware of the very real effects of poverty and the very real shortcomings of many government policies.
The decision of the Harper government to shut down the National Council of Welfare comes at a time when poverty remains a significant blight in a country that has ample means at its disposal to eliminate poverty.
It also comes at a time when income inequality is on the rise, with poor people and some middle-income people stuck with the same levels of incomes they had a generation ago.
Meanwhile, the richest of the rich are raking in huge increases in income that were bolstered in large part by the policies of successive federal ministers of finance.
Most provincial and territorial governments have adopted anti-poverty strategies that aim to break the back of poverty in Canada. The federal government has shown no interest in following suit, nor any compelling interest in the well-being of the poor.
The Conservatives didn’t even have the decency to mention the demise of the council in the budget speech. The budget papers included a table in one of the appendices that showed a cut of $1.1 million a year in the Council’s budget, beginning next year. What the papers didn’t bother to say was that $1.1 million is the Council’s entire budget.
(Steve Kerstetter retired as director of the National Council of Welfare in 2000 and now lives in Vancouver.)