Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Activists urge city council to act on fighting child poverty

from The Hamilton Spectator

By Bill Dunphy

Social activists plan to use the very first meeting of the new Emergency and Community Services committee this afternoon to test councillors' commitment to fighting child poverty.

Social workers, poverty activists and others are planning to call on the committee members to put an immediate end to the continuing clawback from poor families of the city's portion of the National Child Benefit.

Activists say that clawback amounts to more than $300 per family per year, money that's landing in city coffers instead of the bank accounts of the needy. Last year, the city cut the clawback by one third and a staff report going before the committee recommends phasing out the rest of the clawback over two years. Activists like Jeff Wingard of the Social Planning Research Council argue it should be eliminated now.

"Clearly there's a commitment in this city to fight poverty, to make this city the best place to raise a child," said Wingard, echoing the goal of the city's Poverty Roundtable. "We're asking for city council to live up to that pledge -- and one of the ways to do that is to take action on this now."

Wingard and the others have already found an ally in Ward 1 Councillor Brian McHattie who said yesterday that he'll move an end to the clawback at the meeting today. The city -- facing a reported budget "shortfall" of $28 million -- will just have to find another $900,000 this year.

"I'll certainly be talking about the Poverty Roundtable (goal) ... I've got lots of work to do to convince all my colleagues."

The issue is a relic of an earlier age, when the federal and provincial governments were downloading costs and social programs and feuding over their control. The National Child Benefit was aimed at alleviating child poverty, but ran afoul of the provincial social benefits philosophy under the Mike Harris regime. The province refused to pass on the benefit to families receiving social assistance, and has been clawing it back ever since.

The province takes nearly 80 per cent of that money and uses it to fund various social programs. The cities have been doing the same with their 20 per cent share. However, Hamilton -- and a few other municipalities -- have taken a stand against the clawback. Last year council approved a strategy that made an end run around provincial rules and put close to $1 million into the hands of poor families in Hamilton. Current plans call for that pool to grow by another $800,000 this year and $900,000 in 2008 -- while continuing many of the programs that money had been funding.

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