Small steps forward on poverty, but urgent needs still on hold
OTTAWA, Ontario – On March 22, the federal Liberal govermnent released its second budget. Budget 2017, Building a Strong Middle Class, initially labelled an “innovation budget,” maintains last year’s focus on the middle class and “those working hard to join it.”
As people of faith, called to care for those most vulnerable, we want to see a budget that is grounded in strong social commitments that address urgent needs and set out long-term commitments to improving lives.
So, is this government paying attention to people in need?
There are pieces of the budget that move social policy in a good direction – gradually.
It’s interesting to see in the first section of the budget an outline of what the federal government considers its achievements so far to support those most in need. This includes the Canada Child Benefit, which it claims reduces overall child poverty by 40 percent (a claim that has been challenged). It also includes “historic investments” for Indigenous communities, Employment Insurance improvements and Guaranteed Income Supplement enhancements for vulnerable seniors.
These show that poverty issues seem to be on the federal government radar. And they should be. At the latest count, 4.9 million people in Canada live in poverty, food bank use has risen by 28 percent across the country since 2008, and affordable housing is at a crisis point (as reported in CC Feb. 28, “Put people before profit,” by Nick Loenen).
But how does this translate into policy and funding commitments in the 2017 federal budget?
Affordable housing is getting significant government support, more than it has in decades. The federal government has committed to investing $11.2 billion over 11 years for affordable housing. This includes funding to provinces and territories for new units, renovations to exiting stock and rental subsidies. Another part of this funding will go to a National Housing Fund that will support critical housing needs directly.
This commitment is important, and should be expected, given that the government just held consultations for a National Housing Strategy, the findings of which prioritizes addressing urgent needs for affordable housing and improvements for Indigenous communities.
But there is not enough in this budget to meet the overall need. And there are a couple of important qualifiers to this funding. First, this is not all new spending. It’s part of infrastructure funding announced in last year’s budget. Second, it’s funding spread over 11 years. So, on the one hand, it can be seen as a long-term commitment to affordable housing supports. On the other, this 11 years rolls out over the next two government mandates and back-ends much of the funding.
The danger is that things can change over that period. The government could shift priorities, for instance to address the deficit, or we could end up with another government altogether.
This is true, as well, when it comes to supports for Indigenous communities. The federal government has committed an additional $4 billion over 10 years, starting in 2018–19, to build and improve housing, water treatment systems, health facilities and other community infrastructure. There is also additional funding for a new Indigenous framework for early learning and child care, skills development and training, and for improving health outcomes.
But the needs are urgent, and the roll-out is slow.
With the government now in the middle of consultations for its Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy (CPRS), it will be important to see more than a piece-meal approach to addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. This budget provides some first steps, but much more is required.
It will be important to see, through the consultations and development of the CPRS, that the federal government’s strategic approach includes more than a collection of social policy programs with a loose timeline attached. In order to have a real impact, it must involve a comprehensive approach to social policy that includes strong targets, timelines, and accountability, as outlined by the Dignity for All campaign. It also must include the funding required for implementation.
From a faith and social justice perspective, a budget is a moral document that should set forth a vision for the country through social policy priorities that will directly impact communities and lives, immediately and in years to come.
Budget 2017 takes steps in a good direction, but whether more steps will follow is no certainty.