May 13, 2011

Painful lessons to anti-poverty groups

After several years of action in Ontario's Poverty Reduction Strategy -- the launching of a strategy in 2008 with targets and timelines; increases to the Ontario Child Benefit; 7 straight years of increases to the minimum wage; and poverty reduction legislation -- I feel like momentum has stalled. It is not just that the sharp recession of 2009-2010 threw many more people out of work and into poverty. The latest provincial budget offered little to build on earlier anti-poverty steps. There is a new long-term affordable housing strategy, but no new funding for affordable housing. The long-anticipated social assistance review is about to get underway, but the 1% increase to social assistance rates in the last budget does not even keep up with inflation. And for the first time since they were elected to office, the McGuinty Government did not raise the minimum wage this year.

Add to these realities a trenchant analysis from Toronto Star columnist, Carol Goar, of the short-comings of anti-poverty groups.
Goar reflects on recent Conservative electoral victories -- Stephen Harper's majority at the federal level and Rob Ford's mayoral victory in Toronto -- and senses that conservative messages are ringing more true with people struggling to make ends meet than are the messages from anti-poverty groups. Goar admits her "soundings are limited and anecdotal" . Nonetheless, her analysis has sparked conversation about the way forward on creating a more inclusive Ontario and Canada, where everyone has a chance for a decent livelihood. That's a good thing.

Here is what she had to say:

Why the poor cast votes for Conservatives

They aren’t ready to hear this yet, but the anti-poverty activists who work tirelessly to promote the interests of low-income Canadians need to ask why so many of them voted for Stephen Harper last week.

They won’t like the answers they get. They won’t understand how food bank users and social housing tenants could think the Prime Minister is on their side. They’ll be tempted to interrupt or object.

But their feelings are not the point. There is a serious gap in their knowledge.
Left unaddressed, it will trip them up in next fall’s provincial election campaign, the same way it did in this spring’s federal campaign and last autumn’s municipal race which propelled Rob Ford into the mayor’s chair.

It would be easy for the anti-poverty movement to argue that Harper’s victory was the result of vote-splitting, smear tactics and luck. He did benefit from the “orange wave” that began in Quebec and spilled over into Ontario, dividing the left-wing vote between the New Democrats and Liberals. The Conservatives did saturate the airwaves with attack ads, portraying Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff as an opportunistic outsider. And Harper was publicly endorsed by Toronto’s mayor, in a departure from tradition.

It would also be easy to stay the course, hoping the Conservatives will see the light. Despite the fact that Harper has announced his priorities — which don’t include poverty reduction — anti-poverty groups are busy writing articles and circulating studies that bolster their case.
But neither rationalization nor wilful blindness will get them far in the next electoral showdown. Tim Hudak, who leads the ascendant Ontario Conservatives, uses the same playbook as Harper and Ford.

After being sidelined twice in the past eight months, anti-poverty campaigners need to figure out how right-wing cost-cutters connect with voters — especially low-income voters.
My soundings are limited, but a few themes keep popping up:

• People in low-income neighbourhoods are the biggest victims of the drug dealers and violent young offenders Harper is promising to lock up. They want relief from the violence they can’t escape. They want to rid their communities of the gangs that lure their children into gun-and-gang culture. Crime crackdowns make sense to them.

• What Canadians struggling to make ends meet want most is a job; not government benefits, not abstract poverty-reduction plans, certainly not charity. Harper tapped into that yearning, promising to stabilize the economy and create employment. The New Democrats, aiming to beat him at his own game, said they would cut small business taxes.

• It angers low-income voters to see secure middle-class bureaucrats getting pay hikes. Those trapped in entry-level service jobs seethe when public employees who earn far more than they ever will are rewarded simply for showing up. Those living on public assistance — employment insurance, welfare, old age security — dislike being treated with contempt by government officials. In both cases, cutting the public payroll has a lot of appeal.

• Canadians fighting to stay afloat often have little regard for the anti-poverty organizers, professors and social planners who profess to speak for them. They don’t appreciate being lumped together and labelled. They don’t want political advice.

• Like most people, low-income voters mistrust politicians of all stripes. They don’t believe their promises and they don’t pay much attention to their rhetoric. Many don’t cast ballots. Those who do, opt for politicians who speak in plain language about issues that matter to them.

Some of these signals are contradictory. Some are counterintuitive. But they point to an anti-poverty movement that is out of step with its presumed followers. Its leaders owe it to those they claim to serve to take a painfully honest look at themselves and their vision.
These are hard lessons. They will require openness and humility. But the alternative is increasing irrelevance.


  1. I'd like to hear ISARC grapple with and respond to Goar. Was there any hint of this in their recent social audit?

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