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Les Leyne: The gaping hole in government's claim on poverty reduction

In the midst of a devastating pandemic that has killed or sickened thousands, almost doubled unemployment for several months and rocked the economy, the B.C. government made an audacious claim this week.
photo B.C. legislature generic
The domes of the B.C. legislature in downtown Victoria.

In the midst of a devastating pandemic that has killed or sickened thousands, almost doubled unemployment for several months and rocked the economy, the B.C. government made an audacious claim this week.

Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Nicholas Simons tabled a report saying poverty is being curbed far beyond targets that were originally set.

Those targets were set in the NDP’s first term after the party spent years rapping the former B.C. Liberal government for not having an official poverty reduction plan.

So one was enacted in 2018 with ambitious goals. The new law mandated a 25 per cent drop in the poverty rate from the 2016 level by 2024, and a 50 per cent drop in child poverty over that same time frame.

Two annual reports have now been submitted on that undertaking and they raise a few questions.

First off: Why was this so easy?

The 2019 report stated the general poverty rate had dropped more than 25 per cent and child poverty was down by 42 per cent. That suggested “mission accomplished” in the very first year of a five-year plan.

Perhaps wary of skepticism, the ministry verbiage started downplaying the targets. They “aren’t the sole objective” of the plan, said the report. The ministry also de-emphasized the methodology that defines poverty. It uses a federal Market Basket Measure to calculate a modest, basic standard of living, and StatsCan figures on the number of people who fall short.

It doesn’t reveal the full picture, the government says. But the NDP’s law requires progress reports using that metric, so they’re obliged to provide them.

The second report this week continues the theme of beating the targets – even in the face of a health catastrophe – to the point of incredulity.

Simons wrote: “According to Statistics Canada, in 2019 B.C. has met its targets by reducing the overall poverty rate by 29.4 per cent and the child poverty rate by 57.6 per cent from 2016.”

The report claims B.C. is second in Canada in cutting poverty and far ahead of the national rate. It says the 57.6 per cent cut in child poverty is far ahead of any other province and almost twice as good as the national measure.

The question is: How was this accomplished in the middle of the worst health emergency in modern history?

Part of the answer is the key number in Simon’s outline: the 2019 date.

Although the 2020 report goes into exhaustive detail about how difficult COVID-19 has made things, most of the data is not from 2020.

It states: “Due to COVID-19, data from several sources has been delayed. These delays, coupled with the fact that several of the indicators used in the 2019 report are only available every few years, meant that the 2020 report focuses more on stories of success and resilience during the pandemic and less on statistical data.”

So there are nine topic boxes recounting anecdotes from people who have been helped by government.

The bulk of the report is a 40-page catalogue of every single measure every public agency in B.C. has taken to help people in poverty. (It’s comprehensive to an absurd degree. The Vancouver Convention Centre donated baked goods to charities, the Royal B.C. Museum added to its online content, etc., etc.)

It’s a monumental amount of work that accomplishes nothing other than to pad out a 68-page report.

And yet, the pandemic’s impact on the number of people living in poverty isn’t quantified.

It’s blamed on the lag in the statistics. It will take at least a year and maybe two to determine how people in poverty weathered the storm.

In the meantime, the 2020 report proclaims: “B.C. has met both targets.”

There are 185,000 fewer people living in poverty, including 81,000 children, than there were in 2016, it states.

There’s no question that provincial enhancements to benefits and a strong economy contributed to that decline. But the report notes “the largest contributor was the federal Canada Child Benefit.”

Maybe the federal government’s role and the gaping hole in this extraordinary success story — the absence of 2020 data in the 2020 report — is why it was downplayed and soft-­pedalled during the release.