The surprise announcement that this Friday will see the end of this Legislature session means that several bills now awaiting the attention of legislators will be rammed through without much debate. One of these is Bill 39, the Economic and Social Inclusion Act.
This is the bill that gives legs to the government’s poverty reduction plan announced several months ago. The Conservatives participated in and endorsed the plan so there is a good chance this bill will see swift passage. It is also one that hasn’t received much scrutiny precisely because the Official Opposition was part of the process that developed it.
This bill has at its heart the creation of a new Crown corporation to oversee the implementation of a poverty reduction plan by 20 geographically located “community inclusion networks.” The Economic and Social Inclusion Corporation will have a volunteer board of directors, a coordinating secretariat and a budget to distribute to the 20 networks which will develop and implement local plans for meeting the needs of the poor while working with them to become active productive citizens.
The idea of a community network developing and implementing a local plan based on a local assessment of needs is appealing. In embracing this model, however, there is a danger of losing sight of the bigger picture.
The reason most people live in poverty is because they cannot work and social welfare rates are too low to allow them to live with dignity in society. Despite promises to do so, the government’s poverty reduction plan does not put more money into poor peoples’ hands; instead, it puts more money into the systems that administer programs to support poor people in their daily struggles.
This new Crown corporation, with its attendant new costs, is to “ensure the continued partnership of the citizens of New Brunswick in the development, adoption, implementation and evaluation of an Economic and Social Inclusion Plan.” In short, it gives certain interest groups access to decision-making regarding poverty reduction and the delivery of services to people living in poverty. One of those interest groups is the business community, and one of the features of the new Crown corporation is its ability to receive funds from sources other than government; presumably the target here is also the business community.
Doesn’t opening government poverty reduction programs to private funding undermine the social democratic concept of wealth redistribution? Is there not the potential for undue influence of those “partners” who top up the pot from which programs are funded?
I do not cast aspersions on the motives of the business community or anyone else in the development of this plan. Nonetheless, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this model downloads and at least partially privatizes the business of government, shifting responsibility from accountable politicians to an appointed board of directors.
This model also raises issues of redundancy. Whatever the goals of the poverty reduction plan, cannot existing government departments and staff be reorganized and re-mandated to do this? Are the civil service and its departmental silos so intractable as to require a parallel governance structure to carry out its mandate? If so, this is a luxury New Brunswickers can ill afford and a much more invasive and transformational change needs to come about than this insufficient band-aid.
There is an alternative to building additional management infrastructure for helping people in poverty. Rather than complexity, we should be striving for simplicity.
This weekend in Montreal an international conference will be held on the concept of a basic income guarantee (BIG), another term for guaranteed annual income. After a few decades in the wilderness, this concept is gaining new ground after a few decades of free market, free trade economics has exacerbated rather than solved the problem of poverty in poor and rich countries alike.
Guaranteeing everyone an income above the poverty line would eliminate myriad welfare programs, income and heating supplements, food banks, and shelters. When people don’t have to worry about their next meal or heating bill, they are able to engage as active, productive citizens in the life of their communities. They are healthier, better educated, and free of stigma. The benefits to society far outweigh any additional cost.
There are some meritous aspects of the government’s poverty reduction plan, but it is still tinkering at the margins of the problem. A serious commitment to wealth redistribution through livable income guarantees will much more quickly and compassionately solve the poverty problem, and other problems driven by poverty, once and for all.
Janice Harvey is a freelance columnist, university lecturer and president of the New Brunswick Green Party. She can be reached by email at waweig [at] xplornet.ca.