Publications, opinions, and speeches


Time to reframe poverty reduction as a matter of rights

Published on 25/02/2015

Hardly a day goes by without reading about a community announcing a poverty reduction plan or an organization releasing a paper on what has worked and what hasn’t. The City of Toronto has just launched a second phase of consultations to inform the development of its own poverty reduction strategy. Tamarack lists poverty reduction initiatives from almost 60 municipalities on its Vibrant Communities Canada website. Almost all provinces and territories have committed to their own plans including Ontario, which released its second poverty reduction strategy in September 2014.

What has been missing thus far is a national strategy driven by the federal government. Recently, Dignity for All, a campaign for a poverty-free Canada co-led by Canada Without Poverty and Citizens for Public Justice, has put forward a national anti-poverty plan that could be adapted by the federal government. The plan itself is “based on the understanding that poverty is a violation of Canada’s human rights obligations.”

Poverty is systemic and rooted in economic, political and social systems, as well as in ideologies and institutions that are interconnected and that create the conditions for poverty. While framing poverty reduction as a matter of human rights may not be commonplace, we think that such an approach could be particularly useful in drawing attention to the ways poverty involves economic deprivation as well as considerable social and political inequities. It may also open doors to innovative new solutions and ideas that will lead to meaningful change.

A rights-based approach to poverty reduction would take into account the economic, social, political, civil and cultural rights that are disrupted by the realities of poverty.

Economic rights, such as the right to work and the right to income security, illustrate the potential but also the barriers in accessing rights. Opportunities for fulfilling work with fair wages in conditions that are safe and healthy are basic rights. Strategies to develop local economic opportunities, like Community Benefit Agreements, are promising examples of this potential. Conversely, the chronic underfunding of tools like the Canada Child Tax Benefit and the Working Income Tax Benefit demonstrates a real barrier for many individuals and families. This kind of deliberate and willful neglect deprives people of their right to income security, and affects their ability to access social, political and civil rights.

When it comes to social rights, we look at the rights that Canadians should enjoy to healthcare, food security, safe housing, and quality education, and see that these rights are violated or inaccessible for many people. Numerous groups and organizations in Toronto support the protection of these rights, including the innovative work done by organizations like The Stop and Community Food Centres Canada to connect issues of food security to housing, income and child care.

Finally, political and civil rights are central when looking at people’s ability to engage meaningfully in decision-making processes in society that impact their lives. At Maytree we have focused some attention in the area of civic engagement and leadership through training programs which strengthen community and grassroots voices including our own School4Civics program. We have also supported the work of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in expanding Canadians’ knowledge and access to political and civil liberties.

Looking at poverty reduction through the lens of human rights can also be helpful when thinking about who lives in poverty, as it can reveal how and why certain populations are marginalized, and what barriers they face. Particular groups of people in Canada continue to face greater degrees of social, political and economic marginalization, including new Canadians, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities, children and youth, lone parent families, homeless people and visible minorities.

Poverty prevents people from living their lives with dignity. As we work to find solutions to reduce poverty, the importance of creating self-worth and resilience at the level of the individual and the community is critical. By understanding poverty as a rights-based issue, we see the opportunity for systemic change in the social, political and legal realms, and the need to remove those barriers that prevent individuals from pursuing opportunities to make the best lives possible for themselves and their families.

As communities, cities, provinces and hopefully our federal government develop strategies for reducing poverty, we believe it is vital to focus on how we can better protect every person’s right not to live in poverty.


Human rights, Poverty


Framing poverty reduction as a matter of human rights may open doors to innovative new solutions and ideas that could lead to meaningful change.