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Abbott Breaks from Lib Pack, Pledges Child Poverty Consult

Baby deaths report shakes up leadership race after scant focus on BC's impoverished.

By Andrew MacLeod 28 Jan 2011 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. You can reach him here.

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Liberal leadership candidate George Abbott: set 'achievable legislated targets' on poverty.

A report on British Columbia child deaths released Jan. 27 found that poverty was a major factor. But until George Abbott suggested a public consultation process aimed at reducing child poverty, there was little in the campaign to become B.C.'s next premier that suggested the candidates were prepared to address the depths of the problem.

Several of the candidates to lead the BC Liberal Party had been talking about how to support families, but the suggestions were things like lowering taxes, raising the minimum wage, spending more on playgrounds and giving everyone an extra day off.

None were likely to address the kind of poverty described in Fragile Lives, Fragmented Systems from Child and Youth Representative Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. "The lack of a coordinated and responsive government approach to poverty is ... a significant concern in this review," said the report, which looked at the short lives of 21 infants who died before their second birthdays.

"As a group, these infants lived in serious poverty as well as inadequate housing," the report said. "These cases starkly show the inability of families to improve their life circumstances across generations, with devastating results. The families in this review, particularly the Aboriginal families, were often stuck in chronic, deep poverty."

The report noted that B.C. continues to have the worst after-tax child poverty rate in Canada and that Turpel-Lafond has been advocating for a "comprehensive provincial poverty reduction plan."

"We need to have a real dialogue that looks to the needs of children in deep poverty as well as children of the 'working poor' who are often overlooked," Abbott is quoted in a release put out today by his campaign. The public consultation Abbot proposes would be intended to lead to the crafting of legislation setting defined, measurable targets for making progress against poverty in B.C., and holding government responsible for meeting those goals.

BC lacks plan

Child poverty has been a weak spot for the B.C. Liberal government and a frequent topic of NDP opposition questions.

The rate spiked starting in 2003, two years after the Liberals first came to power under Premier Gordon Campbell, according to the most recent report from First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.

"Poverty rates usually move up and down with the health of the national economy, but British Columbia's child poverty rates have been out of whack in recent years," the report found. "While the national child poverty rate was on a strong downward trend because of year after year of economic growth, the B.C. child poverty rate climbed to a record high 24.6 percent in 2003 and fell down near the national rate only in 2008."

Six of Canada's 10 provinces have committed to poverty reduction plans, it said, but not British Columbia.

Before Abbott stepped into the breach, those looking for a Liberal leadership candidate to improve that record would have been mostly disappointed.

The leader in public opinion polls, Christy Clark, a former minister of children and family development for the province, launched her campaign saying it was about putting families first. Her campaign team failed to respond to a request for an interview for this story.

Of the 13 "key issues" listed in the policy section of her website, none address poverty directly, though she says supporting families means building a "secure and strong" economy. "Christy Clark will fight to grow B.C.'s economy by creating the jobs that families need to support themselves, now and in the future," it says.

She also suggests creating a "family day" statutory holiday in February.

Abbott proposes consultation

George Abbott, whose Campbell cabinet experience included several years as health minister and a more recent posting as aboriginal relations and reconciliation minister, defended the government's record.

"I think we have undertaken many steps to try to improve the situation in relation to those who are economically disadvantaged in our province," he said in a Jan. 19 interview.

There is, however, more to do, he said.

"I would say the minimum wage adjustment will be an important step," he said. "After a decade of static minimum wage, a wage increase is due." That wage has been frozen at $8 an hour since 2001 and is now the lowest in Canada. The ministry of labour is consulting with stakeholders about raising it.

An emphasis on creating and providing affordable housing needs to continue, he said, as well as a focus on education, especially for Aboriginal People. The province also needs to build more economic opportunities on the land base for first nations and others, he said, adding that he would continue looking at agreements to share mining revenues.

Then, today, a day after Turpel-Lafond's report was released, Abbott proposed a public consultation on reducing child poverty. The discussion would include people from non-profits, business, immigrant services and First Nations.

They would look at how best to measure child poverty, which groups are most affected and how to set policy to respond. They would also propose "achievable legislated targets for reduction over the next five and 10 years."

"The participants themselves would be tasked to define the problem and design a set of solutions together through ongoing dialogue, and also submit to taking action as partners to support the solution in recognition that no single group alone can solve the problem," Abbott's announcement said.

"We need to look at the impact and effectiveness of all our current policy responses such as federal and provincial transfer programs to low-income families, the way we use our tax system to support these families, and whether the combination of these measures may be resulting in unnecessary 'claw backs' of programs for some families," the announcement quoted Abbott.

Abbott's plan for families on his campaign website also suggests a tax credit program for home renovations, a tax credit program for children's extracurricular activities like the federal government already has, fighting organized crime to make neighbourhood's safer and expanding grants for school playgrounds.

Let 'em eat shortbread

Kevin Falcon's campaign failed to respond to a request for an interview. The policy section of his website suggests he would support education and low taxes. "To ensure our kids grow up to enjoy every opportunity that we have, and more, we need to continue to provide an economic framework that encourages investment and job creation," it said.

For struggling families, there would be a minimum wage hike, but with this caveat: "It needs to be done in a consultative way to ensure we stage any increases to help our small businesses adapt. It is important that we ensure we don't harm the very people we're trying to assist by discouraging hiring opportunities."

Mike de Jong's website appears to be silent on poverty and families, though he does demonstrate how to bake shortbread cookies.

Parksville Mayor Ed Mayne said in an interview he supports raising the minimum wage to $10 or even $11 an hour. A former Tim Horton's vice president, a franchise of the donut shop is the family business. "I think everyone deserves to make a decent living."

But Mayne also thinks child protection, welfare and social benefit programs need to be better funded, he said. "We have some very far ends of the extremes her in this province," he said. "If there's one case of poverty, then you've failed miserably, haven't you?"

That B.C. has the highest rate of child poverty in Canada is an embarrassment, he said. "Those things bother me a lot," he said. "We've got a lot of things we can be proud of, but it bothers me."

BC Liberal Party members will vote for a new leader on Feb. 26.  [Tyee]

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