Mr. Chair, at this late hour I am pleased to speak to this important series of estimates of a department that has significant responsibilities in the government.
It has been said that the true measure of a civilization rests upon how it cares for its vulnerable members and, by any measure, Canadians care deeply about the welfare of our fellow citizens. We understand that if we want to build strong communities, a healthy population, a dynamic economy and a more equitable society, we have to ensure Canadians have the tools and financial resources they need to achieve their full potential. We know that in supporting the disadvantaged and reducing poverty we strengthen society as a whole.
It would be hard to find a community within each of our jurisdictions that has not been touched by poverty. Poverty affects Canadians of all ages and from all parts of this country. Federal investments in people have improved and are improving standards of living. As a government, we continue to find new ways to support community driven efforts to address poverty.
For children, not being raised in poverty can mean better health, better educational opportunities, secure shelter and an overall better start to a life in which their potential at any next stage of their life can be more fully realized.
For seniors, an adequate income can contribute to a life not much different than that lived before they were seniors, a life of purpose and engagement, of contribution to family and community, and most important, one of dignity.
For people with disabilities, for aboriginal Canadians and for other vulnerable groups, escaping poverty can mean a fuller and more complete life lived.
As a result of the complex and often dynamic nature of poverty, we know that no one policy or program can respond to all the different circumstances of individuals, families and communities. We know, for example, that having a job does not necessarily mean a route out of poverty for indeed there is a significant population of working poor in Canada.
Addressing poverty requires that the federal government work with our partners, other governments, the business and voluntary sectors, communities and citizens through an integrated set of policies. This is the approach taken by the Government of Canada.
It rests on three main policy pillars: first, providing income support to families in need; second, supporting the labour market integration of working age individuals; and third, delivering benefits and services to address particular circumstances faced by some individuals, their families and their communities. Let me give the House a few examples.
A key element of our approach in tackling poverty among children is the national child benefit. A collaborative initiative between federal, provincial and territorial governments, the national child benefit, an important platform, provides income supports, programs and services for low income families with children regardless of whether the parents are in the workforce or on social assistance.
By 2007-08, the child benefits paid by the Government of Canada are projected to reach $10 billion a year. As a result, a low income family with two children will receive an annual maximum of $6,259 in child benefits.
For their part, provinces, territories and first nations reinvest a further $764.2 million in complementary benefits and services for low income families with children. These include child benefits and earned income supplements, child day care initiatives, early childhood services and children at risk services, youth initiatives and supplementary health benefits.
In April 2005, federal, provincial and territorial governments released their fifth progress report under the national child benefit showing that government investments for low income families continue to increase.
Further, the soon to be released joint evaluation of the national child benefit reinforces that it is making progress on all three of its goals: first, reducing the incidence and depth of poverty; second, promoting parents' labour force attachment by ensuring that families are better off as a result of working; and third, reducing administrative overlap.
In addition to income support, the government recognizes that other services are needed to support children from low income families. We know that good quality, affordable child care, which has certainly been the discussion of the evening, not only promotes healthy child development but is also a key factor and an important factor in a parent's ability to work.
To increase the quality of and access to child care for Canadian families, in budget 2005 the government committed $5 billion over five years to start building a system of early learning and child care in every province and territory. To date, signed agreements in principle with five provinces have been developed, the first one, I am proud to say, in the province of Manitoba.
Through the Understanding the Early Years initiative, the government supports work that helps communities understand how their young children are faring and how the provision of local services can help or hinder a child's progress. With UEY, funds are provided to support community learning and mobilization to help make children ready to learn when they enter the formal school system.
Moving from young people to the less young, Canada has a tradition of reducing poverty rates among seniors. A generation ago we introduced public pensions and old age security for our then most vulnerable citizens. Through the Canada pension plan, old age security and the guaranteed income supplement, approximately $50 billion annually is paid out in direct income support to senior Canadians.
To further improve the situation of low income seniors who remain vulnerable, the 2005 budget announced increases to the guaranteed income supplement for low income seniors which will raise the GIS payments by $2.7 billion over five years.
In the last 25 years, the Government of Canada has also taken significant steps, particularly in the area of employment income and taxation, to help persons with disabilities overcome low income and other barriers to inclusion. One important example is the multilateral framework for labour market agreements for persons with disability through which the government invests $223 million annually in provincial and territorial programs to help those who are disabled. Another is the child disability benefit which helps low and modest income families with the additional costs they incur in raising a child with a disability.
Important for the city of Winnipeg, which where I am from, budget 2004 announced the doubling of funding for the urban aboriginal strategy to $50 million so that more communities can provide programs that address the challenges and priorities of aboriginal people living off the reserve, and to provide coherence and congruency so that departments speak to each other and jurisdictions cooperate.
Through the aboriginal human resource development agreements, which is another important initiative for my city, the Government of Canada provides funding of $1.6 billion over five years to enable aboriginal organizations to design and deliver employment programs and services.
Budget 2005 also announced $398 million over five years to help newcomers better integrate into Canada.
The government also delivers benefits and services to address the challenges faced by individuals and their families at the greatest risk of exclusion. The Government of Canada has committed $1.1 billion for the affordable housing initiative which works in partnership with provinces and territories. As well, the government has committed more than $500 million for housing renovation programs to help low income housing residents with critical repair needs.
The national homelessness initiative has received over $1 billion in funding to support community driven solutions to help alleviate homelessness.
In addition, community based efforts, such as those focused on Canada's social economy, are playing an important part.
Finally, we know that the key to any solution to poverty is an economy that creates jobs supported by a skilled workforce. Therefore as a government we are continuing to foster a climate of economic help that extends to all citizens.
How effective has this approach been? There can be no debate that measurable progress has indeed been made. Take the example of our seniors. In 1980, 21.3% of Canadian seniors were below Statistics Canada's after tax low income cut-off. By 2003 the number had fallen to 6.8%.
Experts have confirmed that this substantial drop can be largely attributed to the maturation of our public retirement income system.
Low income rates for Canada's children have also fallen from 18.6% in 1996 to 12.4% in 2003. The national child benefit has played a significant role in this trend. Rising federal investment levels mean the national child benefit will continue to help prevent and reduce child poverty. The $5 billion over five years committed by the Government of Canada for early learning and child care should also provide a substantial benefit in the development of our children.
Much has and is being done. However, in spite of all this, there is no question that much more remains to be done. Not all Canadians have benefited to the same extent and significant poverty related challenges remain.
Given the importance of this issue in supporting the social and economic inclusion of Canadians, I would like the Minister of Social Development Canada to give us his views on how the Government of Canada should move forward to further address the challenges faced by low income Canadians.