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To be a reformer, Trudeau must focus less on the middle class and more on the poor

Ed Broadbent is the chair of the Broadbent Institute.

As a self-described reformer, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spends an awful lot of time talking about the middle class. There was a time when reformers looked elsewhere. They said the real test for a progressive government is how it treats the poor. Winning an election by appeals to the middle class is one thing. But continuing with that emphasis while almost five million Canadians are in poverty is a betrayal of the democratic goal of equality. It’s a particular betrayal of poor Canadian children who have been promised equality of opportunity.

The evidence at home and around the world is very clear. Poor children – more than a million in Canada – have shorter lifespans and lower educational achievements, are more likely to break the law and less likely to participate in civil society and government when they grow up. All of this because their parents are poor. They failed to select one of Mr. Trudeau’s middle-class moms. For them, the Liberals’ slogan of equality of opportunity is just that, a slogan.

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Back in 1989, three federal parties worked together to propose and pass a motion that I, as the leader of the federal NDP, moved to eliminate child poverty within a decade. We all thought that, with the right mix of policies at both the federal and provincial levels, this timeline was possible.

After all, Scandinavian countries had already succeeded in establishing the most equal societies in the world, societies significantly surpassing both Canada and the United States in upward class mobility. And in Britain, Gordon Brown, the Labour government’s chancellor, went on to set targets for reducing child poverty and achieved reductions year after year. Meanwhile, our federal governments, whether Liberal or Conservative, basically ignored their legislated 1989 commitment. The result? Child poverty is up, not down. In 1989, at 15.8 per cent. Now at 17.4 per cent.

All politicians know the poor are less likely to vote than their middle-class compatriots. And of course, poor children don’t vote at all. Is this why Mr. Trudeau has continued to emphasize the middle class? While changes to the Canada Child Benefit and the working income-tax benefit plan have helped, there’s a clear failure to reform an unfair tax system that, with all its remaining loopholes, continues to favour the rich.

The government now has a chance to change directions. It is due to announce a Canadian poverty-reduction strategy within weeks. We should demand a pan-Canadian strategy to address the needs of the millions of Canadians living in poverty. And, unlike what happened in 1989, this should include specific benchmarks and timelines for child poverty so that subsequent governments can be held accountable. There should be an annual report to Parliament on its implementation.

With the federal government leading the way through targets and provision of the needed key investments, the provinces, First Nations and Indigenous communities should be brought in as participating partners. The reduction of poverty in one of the world’s richest countries should be an inclusive national goal.

The elements of a national strategy are clear. The attack on poverty, and eradication of child poverty specifically, must include concrete action on affordable housing, pharmacare, child care, tax reform, the minimum wage and precarious work.

Any plan should also include proposals for immediate action to reduce poverty in groups we know are most affected. The federal government should start by complying with a two-year-old ruling by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. The tribunal said the federal government racially discriminated against 150,000 First Nations children by failing to ensure they received the same level of services as other Canadian children. A tragic 40 per cent of First Nations children live in poverty. At the very least, they should be provided with clean water and the same level of health, education and social services. We also know that racialized and single-parent families are disproportionally poor and should receive urgent and early attention.

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Much evidence is available showing those countries most concerned with reducing inequalities – yes, the usual suspects: Scandinavia plus the Netherlands – also have, in all classes, the happiest populations. The lesson is that, by ending poverty, we all benefit. All that’s required is the right mix of policies, higher tax revenues and political leadership. Looking beyond the middle class is long overdue.

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