Child poverty in Canada is a national disgrace. So, too, are homelessness and the lack of jobs that pay decent wages to hard-working people, which has led to a growing gap between the rich and poor.
But Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has an opportunity to begin to address the problem in his Feb. 26 budget by setting aside money to launch a national anti-poverty strategy. Without a strategy backed by targets, timetables and funding, little is apt to change for the 1.3 million Canadians who live below the Statistics Canada low-income line.
Flaherty could begin by addressing the growing need for affordable housing in Canada, which is the only major country in the world without a national housing strategy. In 2001, the federal government promised in an agreement with the provinces to add $1 billion to its housing spending for new affordable homes. But by 2006, Ottawa had increased spending by only $234 million, about a quarter of the promised amount.
Meanwhile, the number of Canadian households in need of basic housing grew by 17 per cent in the decade to 2001.
Accordingly, Flaherty should commit long-term funding in this budget toward building 200,000 affordable housing units and co-operatives over the next 10 years. And he should extend the funding for the three existing affordable housing and homelessness projects, which expire in March next year.
Flaherty could then turn his attention to child poverty in Canada by enriching the national child benefit supplement of almost $2,000 per child that is paid to the poorest families. While it is the federal government's most effective tool in fighting child poverty, it still is not doing enough for the 788,000 poorest children.
To help the working poor who are often holding down several part-time jobs to try to make ends meet, Flaherty should consider increasing the earnings supplement for low-wage workers, which now pays, at most, $500 to singles and $1,000 to families. That's not enough to lift them out of poverty.
And lastly, Flaherty should commit to revising Employment Insurance rules so that Ontario workers who must pay into the plan are treated the same as workers in other provinces. Currently, only about one-quarter of Ontario workers are eligible for benefits when they lose their jobs, compared with almost 80 per cent in Newfoundland.
Together these measures would go a long way toward establishing a national anti-poverty strategy and reducing economic disparity.