Any political regime, regardless of ideological bent, that claims the high ground in the perennial war on poverty rallies the faithful with empty rhetoric and promises it knows it can’t possibly keep.
So it was last week when New Brunswick’s Conservative government laid out a plan to reduce penury in the province – one that looked very much like a version its predecessors in Shawn Graham’s Liberal administration introduced five years ago.
How did that one work out for us?
“New Brunswickers want to know the results of the last plan,” Grit MLA Don Arsenault observed earlier this week. “Where do we stand now in making sure that we are heading in the right direction? The government is hiding those numbers, hiding those results, because we are just a couple of months away from the election.”
As for the new plan, Mr. Arsenault said, “There are 28 actions with no deadlines. How can the government measure whether the plan meets its objectives?”
To which Education Minister Marie-Claude Blais sneered, “It (criticism of the plan) is for political gain. That is what the members opposite want to do. That is what they like to do. There are measurables, and the measurables are being attained right now. . .We are doing all of that, and we will continue to do that.”
In fact, neither the Conservatives nor the Liberals have the foggiest notions for reducing poverty in New Brunswick. They trot out the few remaining numbers the gutted Statistics Canada can provide and arbitrarily decide to chop income disparity by between 20 and 50 per cent over, say, five years. All of which are nice, round numbers that signify precisely nothing.
Politicians play the poverty card because they think it makes them appear virtuous. But as they stop chasing their opponents’ tails, they merely set their sites on their own.
Poverty is one of those social bedevilments, like illiteracy, that’s impregnable to partisan maledictions or entreaties. It does not recognize doctrinal superiority. In fact, you best attack it by throwing politics out the window, joining hands across party lines and drinking deeply from the wishing well of good public intentions.
Once that’s done, you spend a whole bunch of money literally reinventing pre-school and primary education systems in this province.
Progressive think tanks, university educators, child advocates – even the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) – have all come to the same conclusion: Early Childhood Education, or ECE, plays a vital role in ameliorating the effects of poverty on families and provides disadvantaged kids with a leg up and out of their impoverished circumstances.
The Carolina Abecedarian Project conceived 30 years ago at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina ay Chapel Hill remains one of the best-known and persuasive longitudinal studies in the field of early development. The initiative, a controlled experiment, was designed to ferret out the benefits for poor children, if any, of early childhood education.
According to its findings, “Children who participated in the early intervention program had higher cognitive test scores from the toddler years to age 21. Academic achievement in both reading and math was higher from the primary grades through young adulthood. Intervention children completed more years of education and were more likely to attend a four-year college. Mothers whose children participated in the program achieved higher educational and employment status than mothers whose children were not in the program.”
Even some economists now believe that ECE is a formidable weapon in the public-policy arsenal for combatting poverty.
In a paper he published last October, Craig Alexander, senior vice-president of TD Bank Group, wrote that “more access to affordable and high quality pre-school education could help to boost literacy and numeracy skills and would help to reduce income inequality in the long run. . .Most studies show that a one dollar investment reaps a long-term return of 1.5-to-3 dollars, and the return on investment for children from low income households can be in the double digits.”
ECE will not eliminate poverty right away; it efficacious effects are generational. And it does cost money – a commodity that’s in short supply in these parts these days.
But collaborating to find a funding solution is a far nobler way for our elected Grits and Tories to pass the time than is sniping at each other over poverty reduction policies and programs that won’t work anyway.