The first Canada-wide poverty reduction strategy sets us on a promising path forward
On August 21, the federal government launched Opportunity for All, the first Canada-wide poverty reduction strategy. While some coverage highlighted the lack of new policies, programs, or investments, the strategy does set out a framework for the federal government’s poverty reduction efforts, through values, targets, transparency, and accountability. Here are four important features of the strategy, and one aspect we’ll be watching closely.
1. It takes a nuanced view of poverty
The strategy is based on three values:
- Opportunity and inclusion, and
- Resilience and security.
Together they point to a multidimensional approach to poverty reduction, one that is not just about ensuring people have enough money, but also about providing access to healthy food, decent housing, and opportunities to participate in society. This is reflected in the strategy’s progress indicators, which include financial assets, unmet health needs, and youth engagement.
2. It sets a headline target and measure
The strategy announced that the Market Basket Measure (MBM) will be the official measure of poverty in Canada. Until now, there have been three commonly used measures of low income, but none of them was officially recognized as the poverty line. While no poverty measure is perfect, the MBM is the best measure to reflect who lacks the resources to achieve a basic standard of living in Canada today. With this official measure in place, the strategy can set a target of reducing the poverty rate by 20% by 2020 and by 50% by 2030.
3. It sets out how progress will be monitored
Alongside monitoring progress towards the headline target, a series of indicators will be published and updated annually to monitor how the many dimensions of poverty are changing. It includes a measure on the ability of households to cover unexpected expenses. This marks a welcome emphasis on resilience to poverty so that families do not instantly fall back into it if there is change in their circumstances. Responsibility for tracking progress on these targets will lie with the new National Advisory Council on Poverty which will advise the Minister on poverty reduction.
4. It makes the government accountable for its progress
The strategy sets a target to 2030, so responsibility for meeting this target will lie with multiple governments. To ensure that this and future governments are held accountable for reducing poverty, the Government will introduce the Poverty Reduction Act which would set the targets, the official poverty line, and the Advisory Council in legislation.
What we’re looking for as the strategy is implemented
The strategy talks about supporting a rights-based approach to poverty reduction, which is welcome, but the credibility of this will only become clear as the strategy develops. A rights-based approach to poverty reduction means embracing non-discrimination and participation; and with an independent National Advisory Council providing ongoing feedback to government, there is scope for the strategy to achieve this.
But it is essential that the Council is adequately resourced to do this meaningfully. It needs to have the capacity to explore how policy can be continually improved to mitigate the disproportionate impact poverty has on vulnerable groups, and it needs the resources to involve people with lived experience of poverty in the strategy’s progression (see Emily Paradis’ ideas paper on how government can better engage with people with lived experience).
A rights-based approach also means ensuring that the poverty reduction commitments are progressively realized. The mechanisms to measure the strategy’s progress against the yearly targets must be in place and fully transparent. A fully resourced Council with legal legitimacy is one way to support this.
In an ideal world, the poverty reduction strategy would have come before many of the Government’s existing spending commitments to help frame priorities. But for a government approaching the final year of its mandate, the scope for new investment is limited. Instead this strategy gives Canada the tools to assess the impact of that spending and ensures future governments learn from and build on this progress at least until the 2030 target is met.