Publications, opinions, and speeches
Toronto city council must fund its promise to reduce poverty
Published on 05/02/2016
For the anti-poverty movement in Toronto, January was a month focused on the City of Toronto budget process, and there is growing concern about whether council will deliver on the promise of a strategy approved only three short months ago.
On the afternoon of Nov. 3, the council chamber was filled with promise and expectation. TO Prosperity, the city’s first poverty-reduction strategy, was presented and a unanimous vote confirmed the good intentions of Toronto’s city council. But this was perhaps an easy vote to cast since councillors voted for a strategy, not a financial commitment. Some even admitted from the floor that they were voting for the strategy with the full knowledge that the money would not be there — and that they wouldn’t support any cuts or new taxes to fund the strategy.
This is not responsible leadership, and it’s not the way to run a city. Strong democracies rely on political culture and behaviour that is responsible and representative.
Councillors have been elected to make the difficult decisions, and to make those decisions that represent the interests of all residents. They have the responsibility to act on the solutions that are presented. In this case, there is a plan to reduce poverty. It was approved unanimously. It is now up to council to fund it.
The question for Toronto councillors is how to pay for the poverty plan. They will plead that the cupboard is bare. But most expert commentary shows that Toronto is failing to take advantage of its revenue opportunities. Its residential property tax levels are well below those of surrounding municipalities.
It has not only failed to take up the revenue instruments available to it under the City of Toronto Act, but has actually terminated one, the vehicle registration tax. And analysis of “revenue hills,” the slope that calculates when tax levels get so high that they change behaviour sufficiently to reduce revenue, shows Toronto a long way from reaching that point.
These technical taxation calculations are not the same as the political calculations some councillors make, which is that their re-election might be jeopardized by voting for a tax increase, even if that increase is to protect the most vulnerable members of the community. This is a craven calculation, and when a politician lets it stand between a child and a healthy meal, or between a family and a home, perhaps they don’t deserve re-election.
At Maytree we have been paying attention to the obligations we have in Canada to protect social and economic rights. These obligations are spelled out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), signed by Canada in 1976. While the covenant was signed by the federal government, it is understood that the obligation to protect and secure these rights applies to all levels of government, including municipalities.
So how is Toronto doing? This month, the UN Committee will review Canada’s performance on protecting these rights, looking specifically at things like the right to adequate food, housing, work and social assistance. These are all elements of Toronto’s poverty reduction strategy.
An important measure in the international review process is the extent to which we are acting on these obligations “to the maximum of (our) available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of (these) rights” (ICESCR, Article 2.1). In other words, are we doing the best we can, given the wealth and resources that we have?
While questions need to be asked of other orders of government about the adequate transfer of resources and provision of revenue instruments, cities such as Toronto need to show the willingness to use the revenue tools available. For the moment, it remains an open question whether council will make the investments needed to implement its plan to reduce poverty, starting with the 2016 budget.
To do so would show that council is ready to accept its obligations to protect the social and economic rights of all residents in our city. It might change the calculation from what the budget can afford to what investment is needed to fulfil the rights of people in Toronto.
Originally published in The Toronto Star as an op-ed on February 5, 2016