Manitoba throne speeches put poverty on political agenda
There was encouraging news in Manitoba's 2015 speech from the throne for people working to end poverty in Manitoba. In several areas, the Manitoba government announced a commitment to invest in the social determinants of health. Make Poverty History Manitoba's top five priorities — housing, mental health, child care, minimum wage and EIA — were each addressed, though with varying degrees of specifics.
Child care was singled out with an historic announcement that is truly nation-building. Manitoba committed to making a universally accessible child care program with 12,000 new spaces.
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Access to affordable quality child care is a key ingredient for getting families out of poverty. It helps parents improve their education and training or enter the workforce. It opens doors to positive learning environments for kids.
Currently, low pay makes it difficult to retain qualified early childhood educators. This is another reason why Make Poverty History Manitoba has argued for a comprehensive poverty reduction plan.
We welcome the province's announcement that future minimum wage increases will be set to bring families above the poverty line. We have argued we need to work toward a minimum wage of $15.53 per hour. That is the level needed to lift a single parent with one child above the poverty line.
More for social housing
The throne speech indicated that there will be further investments in social housing also. Unfortunately, there was not a commitment to a specific number of units in the speech.
We have asked for an extension of the previous commitment that built 300 units per year over five years. The demand for social housing continues to outstrip supply. This is an area on which we will need to continue to press the government over the next several months.
Likewise, the government addressed our concerns about insufficient mental health services in Manitoba. At present, the mental health budget in Manitoba is only half what it should be to ensure adequate and timely access.
The Province is promising to expand community-based mental health programs for youth struggling with complex needs and with addictions. Certainly youth should be a priority, but there are other populations and communities that need support also. For instance, our community partners have identified a need for programs to help indigenous Manitobans suffering from intergenerational trauma. More details of these announcements will be welcome.
One area that received less attention than it was due was in improvements in the basic needs budget for people receiving Employment and Income Assistance (EIA) benefits.
Manitoba did increase shelter benefits this year after several years of pressure from community groups, including Make Poverty History Manitoba and with support from both opposition parties in the legislature. However, the basic needs budget, which is meant to cover everything except rent, has not been increased in over a decade.
The latest Hunger Count report by Winnipeg Harvest shows over 63,000 Manitobans still rely on food banks, indicating that there is a strong need for higher benefits for basic needs. Again, Make Poverty History Manitoba will continue to press on this issue.
While there were some strong commitments in the government's throne speech, Make Poverty History Manitoba is disappointed in the lack of commitments on poverty reduction in Manitoba Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister's alternative speech from the throne.
Pallister should be commended for promising to raise EIA shelter benefits in 2013. His commitment at that time was ahead of the curve. To make the same promise for 2016, however, is misleading, since he is promising something that is already implemented. Also, there was no commitment to maintain the rent assist program for the working poor and others not on EIA. Make Poverty History Manitoba welcomes clarification on this from Pallister.
Pallister promised a raise in the basic personal exemption to help fight poverty, but this method would only provide a very modest benefit to low income Manitobans, and at a high cost. The benefits of an increase in basic exemption, along with promised shifts to the higher tax brackets, would give a small benefit to all tax groups, but it would provide no benefit for the Manitobans in the deepest poverty.
The table below shows the benefits that would be provided to various tax payers given a $1,000 increase in the basic exemption and a two per cent shift in tax brackets. Meanwhile, the cost of this benefit has been estimated at $78 million per year, double the cost of this year's increase in the rent assist program.
Distribution of benefits from proposed PC tax shift in Manitoba
Current Provincial tax
Alternate tax proposal
Making a serious dent
Other priorities outlined as the most important steps to end poverty in Manitoba by Make Poverty History Manitoba through community consultations received no specific commitments. To make a serious dent in the poverty rates, action is needed on increasing minimum wage, building social housing, creating affordable childcare, and investing in mental health. Governments should set poverty reduction targets with definite timelines and monitor their progress.
Pallister's alternative throne speech represents the best view yet of the Progressive Conservative's economic blueprint for government should they form government next April. There is plenty of meat on his pledges to cut to taxes, but for low income people looking for poverty reduction pledges, his words provide only thin gruel.
Low income Manitobans expect more substance from a party that portrays itself as a government in waiting.
Josh Brandon is the chair of Make Poverty History Manitoba, community animator at the Social Planning Council and a CCPA Manitoba Research Associate.