This week, in the B.C. legislature, the official Opposition (MLA Michelle Mungall) introduced a private member’s bill proposing a B.C. Poverty Reduction and Economic Inclusion Act. The Act, were it to be enacted, would see the government develop a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy within one year, and legislate specific targets and timelines to reduce the breadth and depth of poverty.
British Columbia has had the highest poverty rate in Canada for the last 13 years, yet is now one of only two provinces left without a poverty reduction plan. It is about time B.C. caught up with the rest of Canada in tackling poverty upfront and saving lives and money through this approach.
According to a poll released last year by the B.C. Healthy Living Alliance, 78 percent of British Columbians think it is important for political leaders in B.C. to address poverty with a provincial poverty reduction plan with clear targets and timelines. Clearly, the public is ready for political leadership on this issue, so it is gratifying to see a proposed Act such as this.
Importantly, the proposed Act includes extensive community consultation, including with those living in poverty, and also outlines how a government should be held accountable for progress. It commits to embed targets in legislation, to appoint a lead minister, to have a cabinet committee to oversee the strategy co-chaired by the premier, to have an outside advisory committee to hold the government to account, and to annual reporting to monitor progress.
However, the process of implementing a comprehensive strategy should not serve to delay urgent first steps, as there are immediate actions needed, such as raising inadequate welfare rates that have been frozen since 2007 and continuing to raise the minimum wage.
It is significant that the guiding principles of the Act include protecting human rights, addressing the social and economic costs of poverty, and addressing the social determinants of health.
First, at the international level, Canada, in consultation with the B.C. government, has committed to several human rights obligations that guarantee social and economic rights to all citizens. In the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR, 1966), which Canada ratified in 1976, Article 11(1) recognizes “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” A comprehensive poverty reduction strategy would be a critical step in honouring this commitment.
Second, in relation to the costs of poverty, the costs of health care alone in relation to poverty are $1.2 billion per year. Adding criminal justice costs and lost productivity gives a grand total of $8-9 billion per year. A comprehensive poverty reduction strategy, including building affordable housing and providing universal childcare, would cost approximately half that at $3-4 billion per year. The question is not can we afford to do it but can we afford not to.
Finally, the growing literature on the social determinants of health reveals that tackling poverty upfront is the single biggest factor in improving health outcomes for everyone, not just those living in poverty.
The Act was previously introduced by the Opposition in June 2011 but did not receive a second reading in the legislature. There have been no significant changes in public policy to address poverty since that time. Rejecting this call on the grounds that the B.C. Jobs Plan will suffice, as the government has done, is clearly not working.
Despite a strong recommendation from the Budget Consultations report to “introduce a comprehensive poverty reduction plan,” the government failed to include any substantial measures to address poverty in this year’s recent budget.
This recommendation received the unanimous support from the members of the Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, which listen to voices from communities around B.C. before making their decisions. Perhaps the government needs to reconsider their position on this recommendation?
All parties need to support the Act, as has happened in other provinces across Canada. Now is the time for bipartisan collaboration and action in addressing the root causes of poverty.