There was encouraging news in Manitoba’s 2015 Speech from the Throne for people working to end poverty in Manitoba. In several areas, the Manitoba government announced a commitment to invest in the social determinants of health. Make Poverty History Manitoba’s top five priorities – housing, mental health, child care, minimum wage and EIA were each addressed – though with varying degrees of specifics.
Child care was singled out with an historic announcement that is truly nation-building. Manitoba committed to making a universally accessible child care program with 12,000 new spaces. Make Poverty History Manitoba has identified child care as a top priority for poverty reduction. Access to affordable quality child care is a key ingredient for getting families out of poverty. It helps parents improve their education and training or enter the workforce. It opens doors to positive learning environments kids.
The government’s commitment to increasing access to early childhood and after school programs in the Inner City and Northern Manitoba closely mirrors our call to give priority to financially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the expansion of child care. We were also pleased that the government recognized the need for expanding the workforce of early childhood educators by expanding education programs at Red River College and Université de Saint-Boniface.
Currently, low pay makes it difficult to retain qualified early childhood educators. This is another reason why Make Poverty History Manitoba has argued for a comprehensive poverty reduction plan. People doing the important work of looking after and providing early childhood education to the next generation should not themselves live in poverty. We welcome the province’s announcement that future minimum wage increases will be set to bring families above the poverty line. We have argued we need to work towards a minimum wage of $15.53 per hour. That is the level needed to lift a single parent with one child above the poverty line.
The Throne speech indicated that there will be further investments in social housing also. Unfortunately, there was not a commitment to a specific number of units in the speech. We have asked for an extension of the previous commitment that built 300 units per year over five years. The demand for social housing continues to outstrip supply. This is an area we will need to continue to press the government on over the next several months.
Likewise, the government addressed our concerns about insufficient mental health services in Manitoba. At present, the mental health budget in Manitoba is only half what it should be to ensure adequate and timely access. The Province is promising to expand community-based mental health programs for youth struggling with complex needs and with addictions. Certainly youth should be a priority, but there are other populations and communities that need support also. For instance, our community partners have identified a need for programs to help Indigenous Manitobans suffering from intergenerational trauma. More details of these announcements will be welcome.
The throne speech committed to working to modernize “supports to persons who face employment disadvantages due to severe and prolonged disabilities.” This promise is consistent with a commitment Make Poverty History Manitoba received from Premier Greg Selinger earlier this year to create a plan for a pension like income for people with disabilities receiving Employment and Income Assistance. Such a program could provide a basic income similar to the Guaranteed Annual Income/Old Age Security program for seniors and lift many out of the deepest levels of poverty.
One area that received less attention than it was due was in improvements in the basic needs budget for people receiving Employment and Income Assistance benefits. Manitoba did increase shelter benefits this year after several years of pressure from community groups, including Make Poverty History Manitoba and with support from both opposition parties in the legislature. However the basic needs budget, which is meant to cover everything except rent, has not been increased in over a decade. The latest Hunger Count report by Winnipeg Harvest shows over 63,000 Manitobans still rely on food banks, indicating that there is a strong need for higher benefits for basic needs. Again, this is an area Make Poverty History Manitoba will continue to press upon.
It was gratifying to hear recognition in the Throne speech for our coalition, in which over 100 community groups have participated. The Province’s commitment to work “together with community partners, such as Make Poverty History Manitoba” is a sign that the work we are doing is resonating and the voices from community groups across the city that we have sought to engage are being heard within the legislature. In is a sign that together we can make a difference by putting ending poverty on the political agenda in Manitoba. Together, we can make poverty history.