BC Finance Minister Carole Taylor is approaching her political moment of truth with the provincial government's whopping $4.1 billion surplus this past year and more to come in the years ahead.
Taylor could take the easy way out -- tax cuts, debt repayment, infrastructure or spending on only the most popular government programs -- and eventually retire from politics with a legacy that is totally unoriginal and easily forgotten.
Or she could decide to make a real difference in the lives of low-income British Columbians by leading the charge against B.C.'s truly shameful record on poverty.
Taylor and the rest of the BC Liberals have promised a golden future for B.C., a future that will make the province the best place to live in Canada. But that goal will never be reached as long as a significant portion of the population is cut off from the mainstream of community life by virtue of their very low incomes.
BC worst for child poverty
The BC Progress Board set up six years ago to monitor a host of economic and social indicators says in its most recent report that the province had the second worst poverty record of any province in 2005. An estimated 17.2 per cent of all family units were living below Statistics Canada's low income cut-offs after income taxes. That's 97,000 families plus 217,000 unattached persons.
The record on child poverty is just as dismal. B.C. has had the very worst child poverty rate of any province for four consecutive years. There were 126,000 poor children in B.C. in 2005, or 15.2 per cent of all children, according to Statistics Canada.
The Progress Board has been scratching its head about the reasons for such high poverty rates in a province where the economy as a whole is booming. Meanwhile, the social policy community has come to a remarkably close consensus on what needs to be done.
The list includes the following items:
- A speedy increase in the minimum wage to $10 or $11 an hour followed by annual cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage. It seems ludicrous that a B.C. government which values paid work so highly would allow a person to work full-time, full-year and still wind up below the poverty line.
- A major increase in social housing construction by both the federal and provincial governments. The 2007 B.C. budget was mostly small tax cuts disguised as a housing budget.
- A full-fledged child care system to replace the current patchwork system of grants and subsidies that serves some, but not most B.C. parents with young children.
- A hefty and immediate increase in B.C. welfare rates and automatic cost-of-living increases every year thereafter. The small and selective increases of recent years are not even credible first steps toward reasonable welfare rates.
- A provincial return to the field of child benefits in a meaningful way. The B.C. government has been clawing back provincial benefits every year as the federal government increases the National Child Benefit Supplement. The B.C. Family Bonus has virtually disappeared, and the B.C. Earned Income Benefit has become a shadow of its former self.
Taylor's moment of truth
Everyone realizes that a war on poverty won't be won overnight, but it also won't be won with tiny changes in policy here and there.
So the question becomes: Will Taylor finally start listening to the advice she gets about fighting poverty?
The answer to that question could determine whether Taylor spends her time in office as just another politician or a leader who was daring enough to become a champion of people in need.
Steve Kerstetter is a member of the co-ordinating committee of First Call, the BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.