“It frustrates me when people say we have made no progress on child poverty,” said Deputy Premier Deb Matthews, who is in charge of Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy. “Forty-seven thousand fewer kids are in poverty than in 2008. Tens of thousands of kids who would otherwise have fallen into poverty did not. We are making real progress.”
Her audience — bishops, ministers, rabbis, imams and anti-poverty advocates — was too polite to express its frustration. Every autumn for the past 30 years, the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC) has sent a delegation to Queen’s Park to ask the province’s political leaders to eliminate — not reduce — poverty. Two generations of legislators have nodded politely and done little.
Matthews unveiled her government’s poverty reduction strategy seven years ago. Since then Ontario’s child poverty has climbed to 20 per cent from 15.2 per cent. That hardly sounds like progress.
The minister reminded listeners that the Liberals created the Ontario Child Benefit, raised the minimum wage and introduced tax credits targeted at low income families. “When we were elected in 2003, a small group of women formed a women’s caucus which became a social justice caucus,” she said, explaining how female MPPs, helped by groups like ISARC, put child poverty on the provincial agenda.
“Make poverty more of a political issue,” she urged. “We almost never get questions (in the legislature). It doesn’t score high in the opinion polls.”
Matthews has an effective bedside manner. She projects sincerity, concern and optimism. She uses anecdotes skilfully to create an impression of broad-based success. It takes a while to realize there is very little substance in her stories and sentiments.
In this case she was assisted — albeit inadvertently — by Conservative MPP Julia Munro, who spoke after her. The former high school teacher who has represented the riding of York-Simcoe for 20 years left some members of the audience shaking their heads in disbelief.
She took her cue from the biblical precept that if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, if you teach him to fish, he will eat for a lifetime. Applying it to Ontario, Munro said: “Last week I was in three communities. Their biggest concern was finding people to work. Young people aren’t prepared to do a job.” She recounted the story of an employer who hired one young recruit. He missed shifts and quit after a few days. A week later he was charged with break-and-enter.
“At Walmart, the managers have two lists,” she went on. “One of those who are supposed to come in, and one of those who can step in to fill gaps. I think this implies a cultural shift. How close is a child to poverty when he has such a skewed idea of what his role is?”
Sensing the unease in the room, Munro brought her remarks to a hurried close. “We (the Conservatives) recognize that we need to help people in need,” she said. “Very early in my life, I realized it was better to give than receive.”
New Democrat Cheri DiNovo, a United Church minister, was at ease in a roomful of “reverends.” The three-term MPP began by telling her own story. “I was a street kid. The streets were safer than home. The only reason I ran (for office) was to make a difference on this issue (poverty).”
She then launched into a rapid-fire dissection of the Liberal record. “We have the lowest per capita investment in social services of any province in Canada. Our tax rate is the lowest of any outside Alabama. There is a four- to 12-year wait for affordable housing. Our minimum wage rate and social assistance rates are below the poverty line. It has never been this bad in Ontario.”
Actually it’s been worse — when Mike Harris was premier. What DiNovo lacked in accuracy — some of her numbers were unverifiable — she made up in passion. But she is a lone voice in the legislature. “If we had an NDP government, I’d be saying the same thing,” she admitted.
It took all of the diplomacy that moderator Susan Eagle could muster to end the session with grace. The United Church minister and former London city councillor thanked the three politicians for presenting “a diversity of views.”
The delegates filed out of the room thoughtfully with little more than their faith, their fellowship and their own two hands to sustain them. Those, at least, never let them down.