In December 2008, the Government of Ontario released its poverty reduction strategy – Breaking the Cycle. Marian Mlakar, Director, Children and Youth at Risk Branch, Ministry of Children and Youth Services and Catherine Laurier, Policy Officer, Cabinet Office, Government of Ontario discuss details and progress of the strategy. Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy is guided by the vision of a province where every person has the opportunity to achieve his or her full potential, and contribute to and participate in a prosperous and healthy Ontario. Among the principles guiding this strategy are a focus on children and their families, the involvement and unleashing of potential in communities, and using determination, cooperation and effectiveness to achieve results.
To learn about and begin to understand the provincial poverty reduction strategy in Ontario
To learn how progress on poverty reduction will be measured in the province
To understand the relevance and importance of community engagement in the strategy
Marian Mlakar - Marian Mlakar is the Director of the Children and Youth at Risk Branch at the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Marian has 26 years of experience in the Ontario Public Service, across six ministries, in a variety of settings serving children, youth and adults. Her background includes counselling, community development, strategic policy and planning, stakeholder consultations, and research. She has a Master of Social Work degree from the University of Toronto.
Catherine Laurier - Catherine Laurier is a Policy Advisor at Cabinet Office, with responsibility for poverty reduction and children’s issues. She has held a variety of other policy positions with the Ontario government dealing with a range of social issues including post secondary education, labour market integration for internationally trained professionals, labour policy, women’s rights and equality issues. She holds a Bachelor of Science and a law degree from the University of Toronto.
Mark Cabaj - Mark Cabaj is a founding Principal of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement, an organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, focused on assisting people build strong communities through local action.
Mark joined Tamarack in 2002 and is currently the Executive Director of Vibrant Communities – a network of communities and national organizations that use collaborative, comprehensive approaches to substantially reduce poverty within Canada.
Catherine explained that three imperatives drove the desire to have a province-wide strategy:
Children should have the opportunity to succeed in life
People facing challenges should be supported
The social and economic cost of poverty
In order for Ontario to succeed, the government needed to have everyone contributing to their maximum.
In October 2007, the Premier established a Cabinet Committee on Poverty Reduction, chaired by the Honourable Deb Matthews, who was at the time the minister of children and youth services. The committee reviewed current government initiatives and looked at what other jurisdictions were doing about poverty, then helped put an engagement strategy in place. Engagement opportunities included:
14 roundtable sessions with stakeholders across the provinces. Locations, convening groups and participants were selected to arrive at the widest diversity of perspectives.
Minister Matthews talked directly with people living in poverty through a series of social service agency drop-ins across the province.
Dozens of MPs held town hall meetings in their ridings.
An interactive website and a toll-free phone line gave everyone an opportunity to submit their ideas and share their experiences.
Community organizations held their own consultations across the province.
In these ways, the government heard from thousands of people – frontline service providers, community members, and, most importantly, from people who are living in poverty. They heard about success stories and solutions and that community involvement has created ownership, hope, and better outcomes for many communities.
Here, Catherine describes some of the feedback they received, especially from people living in poverty.
As an over-all goal, Ontario’s strategy set a target to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent in five years. The strategy sets out directions and goals in three broad areas:
Education and Early Learning
Initiatives include increasing the number of child care spaces and parenting and literacy centres across the province, funding student nutrition and dental care programs, working with school boards so that all students can take part in activities regardless of income, and helping nonprofit groups have access to schools, so that the schools can become community hubs.
Affordable housing and a provincial rent bank, to help families stay in their homes, received renewed support. There were changes to several income support programs and the Ontario Child Benefit program. The poverty reduction strategy included a commitment to increase Ontario’s minimum wage; the 2010 rate is $10.25, which is almost a 50% increase since 2003. The government also proposed a tax package that will exempt many low-income Ontarians from personal income tax.
The poverty reduction strategy also established a Social Assistance Review Advisory Council. Some immediate, short-term changes to social assistance programs have already been implemented. The council has a mandate for a longer-term transformation of Ontario’s social assistance system that will increase people’s opportunities for work and guarantee security for those who cannot work.
In this clip, Marian describes changes to income support programs and the vision of the Social Assistance Review Advisory Council.
The legislation that governs the strategy, the Poverty Reduction Act, 2009, requires that the government:
Report on progress annually
Develop a new strategy at least every five years
Consult before they develop the strategies, including consultation with those living in poverty; and
Set a specific poverty reduction target at least every five years
The poverty reduction strategy is the responsibility of the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, but many other ministries were involved in its development and now, in its implementation. An inter-ministerial committee meets monthly to oversee the strategy, with representatives from:
Health and Long-Term Care
Municipal Affairs and Housing
Community and Social Services
Training Colleges and Universities
Education and Finance.
A Results Table, chaired by the Minister of Children and Youth Services, has the mandate to drive the delivery of relevant policies and programs, review policy and program implementation proposals from ministries and report on annual progress. Ministries report regularly to this committee with progress reports on their initiatives and to present proposals for feedback and discussion.
In this clip, Marian gives some examples of how ministries work together on policy development. Because poverty is complex, you need “all hands on deck” to make a difference.
Because school life is often a focus of community life, the poverty reduction strategy has many school-based initiatives. In addition to government programs that operate from schools, a Community Use of Schools program offers non-for-profit groups in low-income areas free access to school space outside of school hours so that students and families can benefit from more access to programs and services.
Developing new affordable housing and a commitment to develop a long-term affordable housing strategy are other examples of what the Ontario government is doing at the community level.
In this clip, Marian describes how poverty looks different in rural communities, how schools often become community hubs, and how the Ontario government has looked to communities to see how they have responded to challenges that face rural people and other groups like aboriginal peoples.
The strategy has a goal of reducing child poverty by 25% in five years, and progress will be measured using Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure. This indicator measures the percentage of children under 18 living in a family with an income less than 50 per cent of the median income. Another indicator measures the depth of poverty, by tracking the percentage of children living in a family with an income less than 40 per cent of the median income.
One unique indicator, the Ontario Deprivation Index, was developed for the Ontario poverty reduction strategy by the Caledon Institute and the Daily Bread Food Bank through a partnership with Statistics Canada. The index includes a list of items or activities considered necessary to have an adequate standard of living, but that those who are poor are unlikely to be able to afford. The index reflects the real life experiences of the poor by capturing dimensions of poverty that go beyond income, like social isolation.
In total, there are eight different indicators that relate to different parts of the strategy.
Here, Catherine describes some of the challenges of reporting on progress when there is an 18 month lag in getting data.
Marian explained that government remains committed to a long term transformation of social assistance, and that the Social Assistance Review Advisory Committee is looking at recommendations now. Ontario is also looking to the federal government to step up to the plate. The province is asking the federal government for some specific changes:
Additional increases to working income tax benefit (WITB) to double the original $1000 level
An increase to the national child benefit supplement by $1,200
Renewal of the early learning and child care agreement
Initiatives to address quality of life issues in aboriginal communities and to establish equality in education funding for students on-reserve.
Breaking the Cycle - This is the home page for Ontario’s poverty reduction initiative and provides background and links to the strategy and to the annual reports. Access the page here.
Breaking the Cycle, The First Year - The first annual report on the poverty reduction strategy reports on progress on Ontario’s poverty reduction strategy, and outlines the next steps. You can read the report online or access a print version here.
Ministry of Children and Youth Services - This is the homepage of the Ontario ministry that is responsible for Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. It provides links to the strategy and related programs. Access the page here.
Measuring Poverty: Ontario’s Deprivation Index - In the third seminar of the “Measuring Community Change” series, Liz Weaver interviews Michael Mendelson of the Caledon Institute for Social Policy about the Ontario Deprivation Index. The “deprivation index” lists items which are widely seen as necessary for a household to have a standard of living above the poverty level. Access the seminar here.