Recognizing the federal role in ending poverty

“If you want to do something about poverty, why are you focusing on government, especially the federal government?”

It’s a question I’ve been asked often this past year since coming to work at CPJ. It’s one I’ve asked myself.

While the three years I spent working with poor and marginalized people in downtown Toronto can feel far removed from what I’m doing now, all I need to do is pause and remember the stories of those I had the privilege to encounter and I’m once again reminded of the answer: we simply can’t do it without government involvement.

I think of Dennis, a middle-aged, out of work farrier (a blacksmith that specializes in shoeing horses). We could feed, clothe, and provide emergency shelter for Dennis. We could provide him with much-needed friendship and care. But we couldn’t provide him with the mental health supports he needed. We couldn’t give him skills re-training so he could participate in today’s economy. We couldn’t provide him with a job that paid a fair wage. We couldn’t provide him with the stability of an apartment to call his own. In other words, we were great at responding to the symptoms, but couldn’t bring about the larger, structural changes that Dennis needed.

Government's public justice responsibility and potential

As essential as it is to care for one another on a very personal level, we’re not fully honouring the call to “do justice” if we leave it at that. Government, as the collective institution where we can all come together to promote the common good, has a unique role to play in promoting justice.1 Advocating for better public policies is a very real way we can love our neighbours.

As CPJ’s forthcoming Poverty Trends Scorecard – Canada 2012 highlights, significant progress has been made against poverty for some groups, thanks in part to changes in policies and programs at both the provincial and federal level.

Several decades ago, for example, Canadians decided that something should and could be done about poverty among seniors. In the 1970s, the poverty rate for seniors hovered around the 30 per cent mark; today, thanks to federal programs like the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and the Guaranteed Income Supplement, only five per cent of seniors live in poverty. This has been one of our leading social policy achievements of our time, and shows that government can make a lasting difference in the fight against poverty.

While we should uphold and celebrate successes like this, most of us are well aware of the fact that millions of Canadians continue to live in poverty, especially those in lone-parent families, new immigrants, people with disabilities, and Aboriginal children and their families.

What more can we be doing?

The need for further action

On October 17 (The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty), CPJ and our partners on Dignity for All: the campaign for a poverty-free Canada will be organizing events in Ottawa to ask that question, with a particular focus on the federal government. If you’ve been following our work for any amount of time, you know that promoting the need for greater federal leadership and investments against poverty is something we’re passionate about. While we haven’t seen all our goals accomplished (namely the introduction of a federal poverty reduction plan), there has been encouraging progress, such as the formation of the All-Party Anti-Poverty Caucus (APC) , a diverse group of parliamentarians, organizations and individuals united to end to poverty in Canada.

On October 17 we’ll be making people aware of poverty in Canada, emphasizing the positive role government has to play in bringing about change, and asking the members of the APC and federal parliamentarians of all stripes to identify how they can work together make a difference in the lives of people like Dennis.

Please join us. Find out how you can get involved here.

  1. 1. For more information, check out “Public Justice: What does it mean for citizens, governments, and CPJ?” at /public-justice
Simon is CPJ's former Socio-Economic Policy Analyst.

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