Addressing poverty in the Speech from the Throne

Manitoba’s economy has outpaced the rest of the country since 2008. It now leads every province in employment. Overall provincial debt has stabilized and prospects for future growth are high. Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon will surely be directed by Manitoba’s NDP government to highlight these economic achievements in her Speech from the Throne on November 16.

However, she should also make mention of the distressingly high rates of poverty in this province. Manitoba’s rising prosperity continues to sideline those parts of its population living in poverty – disproportionately Indigenous people, newcomers, single parents, and individuals living alone. This Speech from the Throne should be an opportunity to address the needs of these Manitobans with commitments for significant investments in poverty reduction.

There is no universally accepted measure of poverty, but by any account its toll is high in Manitoba. Using one of the broadest indices of poverty, including First Nations living on reserve, over 228 thousand Manitobans were below Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure. By every measure, children are disproportionately affected, leaving a lasting legacy of stunted opportunities.

Poverty puts expensive burdens on the justice system, as the poor are both more likely to be incarcerated as well as to be victims of crime. In Manitoba, it costs more than $70,000 per year to keep an inmate in jail. Manitoba also spends half a billion dollars per year through Child and Family Services in keeping children in care, many of whom are from families struggling with poverty. Children who live in poverty have lower educational outcomes and less remunerative employment over their lifetimes, contributing less through tax revenues.

Poverty also weighs heavily on our health system. In research on the social determinants of health published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives earlier this year, poverty was found to have a greater association with reduced life expectancy than all forms of cancer combined. Men in low income neighbourhoods in Manitoba can expect to live 10 years less than men in high income urban neighbourhoods; for women the gap is 8 years. Poor housing, inadequate diet, and the ever-present stress of making ends that just won’t meet wear down the body, aging it before its time.

Poverty costs all of us. Fortunately, there are positive steps government can take. Over the past year, Make Poverty History Manitoba has been consulting with community organizations to develop a plan based on the top actions government should to take to reduce poverty. Actions were rated in terms of how much they will reduce both the depth and breadth of poverty with a focus on priorities that can be implemented in the short term.

Among the top actions for reducing poverty is the raising of benefits for people on Employment and Income Assistance (EIA). An individual living on EIA receives only $195 per month to cover all their basic needs aside from rent. This amount has not been increased in more than a decade. It leaves only about $4 per day for food costs, less half the cost of a basic healthy diet in Winnipeg based on the Canada Food Guide. Manitoba should double the basic needs budget to reflect the actual cost of food and other basic necessities. Longer term, a transparent process with community participation should be established to ensure that EIA budgets continue to reflect the actual costs of basic necessities in Manitoba and that these budgets are updated annually.

Other priorities identified through consultations include increasing the minimum wage, investing in social housing, creating more affordable childcare spaces, and increasing funding for community-based mental health services.

No one policy change can end poverty, but these steps would make a significant impact on poverty in Manitoba. We should also stress, we cannot afford to take steps backwards and we should maintain those poverty reduction measures that have already been implemented. A comprehensive approach is needed with clear targets and timelines for poverty reduction against which we can measure the government’s progress.

Traditionally, the Speech from the Throne concludes with the hope that “Divine Providence will guide your deliberations in the best interests of all our citizens.” Let us add only that “all our citizens” must especially include consideration for the poorest among us.

Josh Brandon is the Chair of Make Poverty History Manitoba