Poverty Reduction in Manitoba: Making progress, but are we there yet?

September 8, 2014

Originally published on the Strategy at Work blog

The Manitoba government has made some significant progress around poverty reduction over the last decade or so. Depending on the poverty measure used, between 6,000 and 27,000 Manitobans were lifted out of poverty between 2002 and 2011. Despite this progress, approximately 105,000 Manitobans continue to live with low incomes. Poverty rates in Manitoba are consistently higher than the national average and the child poverty rate is, at best, third highest in the country.

The New Democratic Party has governed Manitoba since 1999, with many people in key positions who have worked in the community sector. They have led alongside a strong and active sector of community-based organizations that are committed to poverty reduction and community development. This sector’s strong and persistent collective voice has been met with a receptive political climate and resulted in the introduction of some very important public policy initiatives to address poverty.

After many years of calling on the government to introduce its own strategy and legislation, community advocates released The View From Here: Manitobans call for a poverty reduction plan. The 2009 report was based on several years of consultations and outlined the essential components of a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy. In the same year, the Manitoba government released All Aboard: Manitoba’s Poverty Reduction and Social Inclusion Strategy. Advocates were pleased to see the government take action but saw its quiet release as a missed opportunity to collaborate with the community and build on the work it had already done.  A major concern was the lack of meaningful consultation which resulted in a strategy that fell short of expectations.

In 2011, the Manitoba government responded to ongoing calls for legislation by passing The Poverty Reduction Strategy Act. The act requires the government to implement a five-year poverty reduction and social inclusion strategy, to take the strategy into account when preparing the annual budget, to establish indicators to measure progress of the strategy, and to report annually to the public on progress. The legislation was an important step toward holding present and future governments accountable to ensuring poverty is reduced in Manitoba.

The Manitoba government has long been criticized for not establishing a strong goal or targets and timelines tied to poverty reduction indicators. All Aboard initially identified a goal to ‘continuously reduce poverty and increase social inclusion,’ and proposed 15 indicators that the government could track to measure progress. However, these indicators were not reported on in the first three years of the strategy. A revised All Aboard was released in 2012 in response to The Poverty Reduction Strategy Act. It introduced a new suite of 21 indicators, which were based on consultations with the community, and set out a new goal to ‘make progress on (the) set of indicators in each year of (the) strategy.’

A commitment to tracking and reporting on the progress of indicators has made it possible to observe trends (see the first All Aboard Annual Report). However, as noted in The View From Here, if indicators are not attached to targets and timelines, there is no real basis from which to measure progress. If you don’t know where you are going, how will you know how close you are to reaching your destination? Furthermore, without targets and timelines, there is no framework for strategic thinking and action. If the government doesn’t know where it’s going, how will it determine the best way to get there?

More recently the Manitoba government has responded to community pressure for targets and timelines around some specific outputs. For example, it committed to creating 3,000 units of social housing between 2009 and 2014. It also committed to increasing the Rent Assist benefit to 75% of median market rent between 2014 and 2018. Community advocates have diligently monitored progress toward these targets. Arguably, the government is in a better position to directly influence the achievement of targets attached to outputs, such as housing units or shelter benefits, than targets attached to outcomes, such as poverty rates or graduation rates, which may explain its willingness to make these commitments.

The absence of outcome focused targets and timelines has resulted in a strategy that is not strongly forward focused. Instead, both All Aboard strategies listed mostly ongoing actions that the government had already announced. In 2012, All Aboard committed to creating action plans around seven priority areas for implementation by 2016. We are almost three years into this commitment and only three of the seven action plans have been quietly released. They have been criticized for consisting primarily of existing commitments and only vaguely identifying new initiatives for future implementation. The approach suggests that the Manitoba government is using the action plans as a vehicle for pulling together all the poverty reduction initiatives that are already underway in a particular area – food security, housing, youth – rather than using them as an opportunity to lay out a vision and strategic road map of actions that will be taken over several years to achieve that vision.

Despite the noted challenges, there has been good progress toward reducing poverty in Manitoba. The government has implemented several important actions, many of which were identified in The View From Here. Significant resources have been committed toward housing, income supports, childcare, employment development, and numerous community-led poverty reduction initiatives. Many of these successes have been achieved, in part, through the strong, persistent, and consistent voice of community advocates. Given that the policy landscape has changed in Manitoba since 2009, community members are now working to renew The View From Here. They hope the government will incorporate its ideas as it prepares to launch the next update of All Aboard, scheduled for release in 2017.

Kirsten Bernas is Research and Policy Manager with CCEDNet in Manitoba.  She received a BA (Honours) in Economics from the University of Manitoba as well as an MA from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. Kirsten represents CCEDNet on the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives‘ Alternative Federal Budget Steering Committee, Make Poverty History Canada’s Steering Committee, Make Poverty History Manitoba‘s Executive Committee, and on the Winnipeg Food Policy Working Group