Friday, December 10, 2010



I'm going to try to step around the partisan politics of the situation and talk about what does -- and what does not -- matter in regards to our new Social Development Minister and her thoughts on poverty reduction.

For those who missed it, Minister Stultz was asked a question on keeping the poverty reduction commitment to raise New Brunswick's social assistance rates. Since I might not be an unbiased editor, let me start by letting the minister answer in her own words, as reported in my morning paper.

"I do not believe and I do not believe that our government believes ... that raising our welfare benefits is the answer (to poverty)," she said in the legislature. "To keep raising the rates is not the answer. It is working with the people to ensure education and so on."

Now, Premier Alward apparently corrected this quickly, and today the minister responded by doing what ministers do when their opinion differs from the premier's....she changed her opinion, somewhat, to report that it was not the ONLY answer to raise rates.

To make sense of what to think of this, it might be worth remembering why the commitments to raise rates and add vision and dental coverage for children whose parents are poor was so important in the first place, and why my friend Bernard Leblanc was asking the question.

The poverty reduction plan isn't a Liberal plan, or even a government plan. It was developed by hundreds of New Brunswickers who all agreed to do more to lift 25,000 people out of poverty. The government commitments are there, in part, because by making them we could ask business, social groups and communities to do more. This is truly a contract government made with New Brunswickers.

Here's why these commitments were made.

Many participants agreed that the fact New Brunswick had the lowest assistance rates in Canada, with some people living on under 300 dollars a month, was a barrier to people getting work. If you have to think every minute how to find food, how to find shelter, you will never effectively think about long-term changes like education or treatment. At least in the first period of getting welfare, people need to have enough to know they won't starve if we want them to think about getting off welfare.

The child health benefits are just as important in the quest to get people off social assistance. Too many people in poverty have told us that the lack of benefits in many entry-level jobs mean they stay on assistance to keep their kids covered for health needs. This benefit is the first step to a universal health plan that will stop punishing people for working-- which is a goal even conservatives should support

Premier Alward has always not only supported the plan publicly, but I can tell you (without disclosing details I shouldn't) that everything I've seen privately has led me to conclude he was engaged in that process and believes it. Before we get too excited, we should remember that he speaks for the government and he has acted quickly in bringing his new minister in line.

The minister has hopefully been told to raise her game, though, because some of her comments are worrisome. You can see from the quote that this was not an accidental omission of "only" -- she said some things that would lead to legitimate questions about whether she understands the poverty reduction plan.

It is ridiculous to refer to the plan as one where we "keep raising rates", because New Brunswick has NEVER kept raising rates. We had the lowest in Canada, and the rates were frozen for the last seven years of the McKenna government and all seven years of Bernard Lord's. The minister should know that.

The comment that education is the answer, as if it were somehow mutually exclusive from raising rates, suggests that the minister has not gotten to know the plan. After all, raising the rates is trying to give people the shred of security needed to begin to think about education and jobs. If the minister hasn't learned that starvation welfare rates are a barrier to work, she should read "A Choir of Voices", the raw feed of what people in poverty told us about their experience. I was a better minister for having read it.

Besides that, can we retire the old canard that because raising rates isn't the full solution, that excuses politicians from having decent SA rates. We all know it isn't the only answer. But frankly, a Christmas turkey drive isn't a full solution either -- yet it has value and should not be arrogantly dismissed.

Minister Coulombe's refusal to commit to minimum wage hikes is just as worrisome, frankly. If you accept the premise that leaving welfare for work should make you better off, only a higher minimum wage will allow room to raise SA rates. You can't do one without the other. And Premier Alward needs to bury the idea his MLAs keep raising about allowing low wages for tipped workers. The problem in reducing poverty is not that we have too many blue collar jobs that allow a living wage -- we have too few.

Finally, two months in, the minister should not be unaware of the commitments in the poverty reduction strategy. It is a four page document. Ministers are paid six-figure salaries, and they should know this one well. Trevor Holder showed he has read it. Premier Alward should tell his ministers that this is mandatory reading, and that is the standard he expects of those privileged enough to sit around the table. If they can't do that, I am sure there are backbenchers like Jack Carr and Kirk MacDonald who have, in fact, already cared enough to read the plan.

Nor should anyone fall back on excuses that to debate this is politicizing poverty -- the fact is, this covenant represents a bipartisan, society-wide consensus. And yes, Liberals should honor our signature on that as Premier Alward has pledged to honor his. But any minister who says they will cast that aside and substitute their own judgement must then defend that decision, because it will be that minister who has politicized the issue by rejecting the consensus. (Paul Robichaud's suggestion that the questions on this file are due to gender were laughable -- the social development minister's views on welfare rates would matter if the office were held by a purple hermaphrodite, and good for Margaret Ann Blaney for accepting that).

None of this should be read as a statement of non-confidence in the new minister. Her community service and past record has earned her a respectful opportunity to get the job down, and it is bloody tough. She does have a ways to go, and Premier Alward will keep the high standard he has met on this file by expecting her to meet the standard I still believe she is capable of setting.

Thanks for the chance to explain WHY the plan matters, beyond the partisan yelling. I'd love your comments.

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