Poverty argument has personal sides

Social Development Minister Shane Simpson had a tough childhood. He touched on it briefly in the legislature recently to make a point.

"I grew up in the Downtown Eastside in a housing project on welfare with my mom and sister."

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He worked his way out and his interest in politics led to staff jobs with MPs and MLAs that eventually led to a political career of his own.

During his first campaign, in 2005, he returned to the social-housing project where he grew up to knock on doors.

"I ran into three people that I'd grown up with who were living there, all still living in poverty. One of them was now taking care of their grandkids.

"They were good people. They weren't bad people. They were smart people. They could not figure out how to break that cycle. Their kids didn't break it and the chances are pretty good that their grandkids won't break that cycle."

The anecdote illustrated the enormity of the problem that a bill he's introduced is designed to solve. It's the Poverty Reduction Strategy Act.

It's a few pages outlining a new plan to legislate specific targets and timelines to reduce poverty substantially.

He called it "historic." It will be historic only if it works.

It's been on the NDP's to-do list for years, introduced numerous times through private members' bills that never went anywhere.

Even after they gained power, it took a while to get it into the legislature, as the groundwork for the strategy ran into delays.

Now that it's before the house, it's prompting extended debate that illustrates some key political disagreements.

B.C. Liberal MLA Laurie Throness said it's a classic difference - "the NDP concentrating on government action and we on this side looking to the market, to personal initiative, not just to reduce poverty but lift people out of poverty permanently."

Simpson said 12 per cent of B.C.'s population lives in poverty - 557,000 people, 99,000 of them children.

About 200,000 of them are on welfare. The rest - the majority - are working poor. An "incredibly inordinate" number are Indigenous people.

When "five or six per cent of the population is Indigenous and 35 per cent of your poverty list is Indigenous, we're doing something wrong," he said.

So the fix is a series of initiatives flowing from a plan coming next spring. Specific measures will be incorporated into a plan to cut child poverty by half and poverty overall by a quarter by 2024.

The actual strategy is due by March 2019. It is to include all the initiatives the government will use. Progress will be measured by StatCan's market-basket measure.

An advisory committee of people from nine different categories will ride herd on the strategy.

That drew Throness's fire, as well. He called it a "major talk shop" that will rack up travel bills and drive new spending programs and "new escalating demands on the taxpayer."

Liberal MLA Ellis Ross matched Simpson's personal story with his own. He had a similarly tough childhood before becoming a Haisla leader. He lived on welfare as an adult, which drove him to alcohol, a problem he overcame 17 years ago.

He said he worked on poverty reduction in his First Nation, "full of energy and vigour." But he got disillusioned because all the efforts crashed into the fact his people couldn't find jobs.

He summed up the thrust of the poverty-reduction programs as: "Get an education, then leave your territory for the rest of your life and get a job."

But Indigenous people don't want to leave home.

"They leave for a job, but ultimately their goal is to get back.

"I'm just glad I didn't spend the last 14 years trying to develop a poverty-reduction plan.

"It was one year before I realized I couldn't get anywhere with it."

He took a different tack, toward economic development and negotiating access to the wealth flowing from it. It led eventually to liquefied natural gas partnerships, which paid off for the Haisla in a big way.

Greens back the poverty-reduction-strategy bill.

B.C. Liberals will likely wind up voting for it. Who's going to vote against reducing poverty?

But some of them have misgivings about the thinking behind it.

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