Wednesday, April 25, 2012


A central part of our campaign has been about simple fairness. I grew up in a place where if you worked hard and followed the rules, you could succeed. That was always the unspoken promise of our community, and something every child could count on. For too many of our fellow citizens, that hasn't always been the case. Sometimes, if you grow up poor, there are barriers. If you work hard and go to college or university, and you don't find a job right away, the debt sinks you. If you're on social assistance and you start work, you can lose help with housing or child care or health care. If you're poor and try to save money by sharing expenses, you get investigated and penalized. Sometimes, people with power make new rules all the time and you get punished for not checking all the rules first, so that you learn to stop trying to do anything at all. Meanwhile, jobs that offered passage into the middle class are disappearing and people are losing hope. That's why jobs and fairness are the big themes of the town halls we're doing, starting tonight in Saint John. I'll report back on what I heard. But I also will be offering some ideas to start debate tonight, and I'll post them here for your feedback as well. Let's get poverty reduction back on track. Funny story -- when I got named Social Development Minister, one of the first speeches I gave was in Saint John where I stated that, while we had a full engagement process that had to be completed, I wanted to see big changes in how we deal with poverty. One policy I targeted was the economic unit policy, a mean piece of work that punishes people in poverty for sharing expenses. I said I would be pushing to scrap it. When I said that, an Opposition Leader named David Alward said this "If the Minister was really committed to getting rid of that policy, he could have get rid of it today." Well, at the end of the consultation process we did indeed agree to scrap it. While we were drafting a new policy, we gave a ministerial direction to the civil service that the policy should not be applied to anyone but traditional dependent relationships (like minors living with parents). Over 1000 people were exempted, and the policy was to be drafted by January 1, 2011. Apparently, the exemptions have ended, and the new policy hasn't been seen or mentioned. Yet keeping this promise would cost less than the tax break for second homes, and might save money by helping people on social assistance save money for things like clothes and transportation to help them find work. So, Mr. Alward, read your words above. And keep them. 2. Let's try new solutions -- like social entrepreneurship. President Barack Obama has begun funding social entrepreneurship models in states with poverty reduction plans. The idea is simple -- if there are social problems in communities that government hasn't solved well, such as stubborn illiteracy, or homelessness, or addiction rates -- the per capita funding is offered to community groups who take the challenge on. They agree to a goal and a deadline (example...these 200 homeless clients will have jobs and homes in 18 months). If they deliver, they are eligible for more funding to help more people. If they don't improve on what government did, they lose. Government still ensures equal funding in all regions, language of service, and oversight. In many cases, old ways are failing vulnerable let's bring new leadership to the table. 3. Reform how we treat people in poverty. Lifting people out of poverty and in to work means that government has to be more than just a source of auditing people. A lot of people living in poverty speak of the dehumanizing process of getting help -- of constantly being treated as if you're trying to hide money or get away with something. Anyone who's ever had a small monthly cheque cut in half because someone discovered a government error in the past they have to clawback knows what it's like to be at the mercy of arbitrary rules. And this doesn't help people get work -- it teaches them to be helpless. Social workers don't like to be auditors either. Let's change the rules to put people first. Start measuring which offices to the best job helping their clients get work, get their kids to school, and conquering health problems. Reward front-line staff for helping, not just auditing. And I'm going to propose we introduce the Dr. Pam Coates Law (because it was her idea and she knows of what she speaks) -- every Social Development office should have a client advocate present always to help people get heard in the process. The Advocate is someone who's qualified, but who also knows what it's been like to live on social assistance. Just so people know when they come in, they do have a right to be heard, to be helped and be humanized, because they matter. 4. Help kids in care. Over 600 children live in care of the Minister of Social Development, and their risks for dropping out of school, being victims of violence and living in poverty as adults are higher than average. Here's one thing we could do to help -- help give them some savings for when they start life as adults, just as many of us had the security of a helping hand from parents when we were young, in debt, and starting out. For less than what it cost to reinstate vehicle registration reminders, we could have a program like Pennsylvania's where kids in care get their summer job savings matched each year, and also get help with job finding and career mentoring by private sector partners. It's one way to level the playing field for kids who need help. That's a few ideas. And I can't wait to hear more tonight.

Monday, April 23, 2012


By now, readers of this blog will know that our campaign believes that jobs and hope should be the central issue for Liberals in the next election. The Alward Conservatives released, as far as I can remember or have been told, the only budget I've ever seen that admits right in its text that the budget will cause higher unemployment and slower economic growth. It has never been clear to me how Conservatives believe a deficit gets reduced when fewer people work and companies make less money and thus all pay fewer taxes -- but at least they are honest that they are willing to slow the economy and kill jobs as a tenet of their economic plan. We should celebrate these moments of honesty from them, as it is a welcome change from the campaign past and likely the campaign to come. Last month our campaign released a jobs plan that could be funded strictly by using existing funds in a smarter way. Now, let's get the debate started on a new way to prevent unemployment without adding to the deficit. It's time for a new approach to Employment Insurance, and a new partnership with the federal government. One of the other candidates, Mike Murphy, has been calling for a stronger assertion of our interests with Ottawa, and on several planks of his platform we agree, such as protecting Old Age Security. (I cannot rate Mr. Gallant's policy in this regard as he has said he wants to delay policy debates until he becomes leader, but I will say that before we give a leader and his advisors the power to make the final call on policy, candidates should give you some sense of which ideas and values they are hearing that they like and dislike. Parties have gotten into trouble electing a tabla rasa only to find out later which people the leader is listening to). That said, it is high time that New Brunswick make the Employment Insurance surplus a key issue before that surplus is whittled away in the tired debate between increasing benefits and cutting premiums. The real problem with both approaches is that help only arrives once people have lost their job. But an even better way to insure against unemployment is to keep it from happening in the first place. If New Brunswick asked Ottawa to return half of our share of the Employment Insurance surplus, we could use it to establish a Life Long Learning Fund. Here's how it would work. If you've paid into EI and made no claims in five years, you can use some of the money to upgrade your skills. It could be adding a certification in a trade, go toward a part-time degree program that will open up new opportunities, or even to literacy or second language training if that makes you more employable. Like EI, the LLF would work on a cost-recovery basis. The old way of looking at education was that you went to school, graduated at 18, chose the program that got you into the career you wanted, and by age 22 school was just a thing you looked back upon fondly in yearbooks. Today, that just isn't so. If you looked at the ten most recruited jobs in 2008, seven of them didn't even exist in 1998. That's how quickly skills can change. And New Brunswick has a lot of employees who are in jobs that made good financial sense when they took them, but now are at high risk of vanishing. We have too many families who live in daily fear of the nightmare economic scenario -- you're in your late 40s and your job disappears, you're not trained to do anything else, and you owe money on a home in a town where property values are falling. Employment Insurance is about trying to solve that problem once you are there--and it often fails to do that. The LLF would allow people to avoid it altogether. Adopting a Life Long Learning Fund would make us more competitive in attracting jobs as well. Companies with long-term growth strategies like to set up shop in provinces that make a commitment to skills that adapt to the pace of economic change today. Adopting a job-friendly agenda isn't about raising spending. Like the jobs plan we've proposed,the LLF is about using money that's already in the system smarter. The Alward government wants us to believe that New Brunswick has lost 5000 jobs under their watch because money is in short supply. In fact, most jurisdictions in Canada have seen employment rebound in spite of deficits. It's creativity that is truly in short supply under this government -- and Liberals can win when we offer a real alternative.