Indeterminate hiatus

This blog is on indeterminate hiatus.

Triage: Homelessness and more

With a long weekend ahead for many of us, and a longer break for the Social Policy Cafe blogger, I’ve included three articles on homelessness, and two other articles (one on planned federal spending, and one on optimal tax rates) for your reading pleasure in my absence.

There are three new reports related to homelessness.  First, the US Interagency Council on Homelessness (former platform for “homelessness czar” Philip Mangano, who continues to work on the issue with a newly created non-profit) has engaged in an extensive consultation on new ideas to end homelessness, posting questions posed at stakeholder focus groups, asking for ideas on a website where interested visitors could vote for their favourites.

These questions focused on homelessness for specific population groups (singles, families with children, veterans,  chronic homelessness), on the role of the local community in ending homelessness, and on how to finish the job of ending chronic homelessness. While the results will not be known until next month, the responses with the votes cast for each are available on a special website.

A second report, prepared by policy researchers at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, costs associated with first-time homelessness for singles and families. As noted in an earlier blog post, assigning costs can be a tricky business, but these folks know what they’re doing, despite limited information. They have focussed on “costs associated with the use of homeless and mainstream service delivery systems by families and individuals experiencing homelessness for the first time in six study
communities,” on a monthly basis.

Although the report provides detailed figures (in more than 250 pages), the researchers concluded with three recommendations for communities:

  • Avoid extensive use of high-cost homeless programs (i.e., transitional housing) for individuals or families who primarily need permanent housing without supports or thosewhose service needs can be met by mainstream systems.
  • Alter the way that homeless assistance systems respond to households that are unable to remain stably housed and face repeated instances of homelessness. Communities could consider models such as Homeless Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing.
  • Work with mainstream systems (especially criminal justice, mental health, and substanceabuse systems) to design appropriate discharge planning strategies and ways to identify clients at-risk of homelessness to prevent homelessness.

The third report on homelessness is more local, coming from the Ottawa Alliance to End Homelessness.  In the form of a report card for the year 2009, the publication provides data on shelter usage, showing an increase for youth and families, and a general increase in the length of stays in shelters from 2008 to 2009.

The report is also chock-a-block with other valuable local data, including average rents for various sized apartments for 2000, and then 2008 and 2009, along with the incomes needed to afford them, by CMHC standards, showing the gap between those incomes and incomes for more than 30,000 renter households in Ottawa at the time of the 2006 Census. Finally, the report provides valuable insight into the Hepatitis C infection rate among homeless youth in Ottawa.

For the bonus reports, I point you toward other blogs.  The team at Inside Ottawa at the Globe and Mail has done an analysis of planned spending for each of the next three years, based on reports by 97 departments and financial agencies. The resulting document lists these departments and agencies and associated projections based on greatest reductions in absolute spending and greatest reduction as a percentage of budgets.

Author Bill Curry concludes:

The rankings show that departments poised to lose temporary stimulus money, such as Infrastructure Canada, Industry Canada and the regional development organizations, will see the biggest drop off in spending.

In contrast, the Department of Finance, which is responsible for the ever-growing increases in provincial transfers, tops the list of biggest total increase. Corrections Canada’s planned 27 per cent increase is the largest in terms of percentage.

My last suggestion comes from an economics blog, entitled Worthwhile Canadian Initiatives, co-authored by Stephen Gordon, an economics professor at Laval University and Nick Rowe, an economics professor at Carleton University. (They are also both involved in public policy collaborations.)  The particular entry I am recommending is entitled “The optimal size of government is a partisan issue. The optimal tax mix isn’t,” in which Dr. Gordon provides a clear analysis, with links to persuasive documents, on the importance of choosing to raise revenues by taxing consumption rather than incomes. However, what struck me was the following assertion:

[A] stated preference for a small(er) government sector can only be justified on ideological grounds. A political party may campaign for a larger or smaller public sector, but the justification cannot be that this choice will have a material effect on national income or on economic growth rates.

You may find this article as interesting as I have.

Barring unexpected reliable and fast Internet connections, the Social Policy Cafe will return the 14th of April.  Happy reading!

Social policy: into the future

Two reports released recently focus on social policy moving into the future. The first,from the Alberta College of Social Workers (ACSW), has a provincial focus, while the Caledon Institute of Social Policy’s is federal in scope.  Despite their differences, however, there are common themes.

Entitled ACSW Social Policy Framework 2010: Visioning a More Equitable and Just Alberta, this report explicitly recommends a shift from individualism to a more collective approach, to reduce what it describes as growing disparity in Alberta.  Referring to erosion of the social safety net (as did the Federation of Canadian Municipality report cited in an earlier blog posting), the College calls for a new social policy mix, with a focus on rights-based service delivery, expansion of programs, affordable housing, adequate employment and compensation, proportional representation, and a return to a more progressive tax structure.

The new vision also articulates values to underpin the changes: dignity and respect, equality, equity, comprehensiveness, quality services and social dialogue.  And more detailed recommendations include not only short-term strategies to increase existing income supports (including social assistance, working income tax benefit, and child benefits), but also to introduce a guaranteed annual income over the longer term.

The Caledon Institute of Social Policy vision, entitled Canada at 150: The Social Agenda, was delivered to the Canada@150 Conference, by Sherri Torjman. (This conference has also been called the Thinkers’ Conference, hosted by the Liberal Party of Canada.) Drawing on Canada’s history in social policy, it describes three fundamental challenges moving forward:

From a social perspective, we face three main challenges at 150: Canada as productive society, Canada as caring society and Canada as aging society. These formidable challenges are intrinsically linked.

In responding to the productivity challenge, both springboard (training and education) and safety net (remedies for poverty) are cited as essential ingredients.  Building a caring society would require re-investment in child care, a shift in funding from institutions to home care supports, and invest in improving determinants of health, including housing and poverty reduction.  Addressing the challenges of an aging society would require amendments to pension policy and programs and ensuring accessible inclusive services and supports.

The Caledon vision also addresses financial matters, and calls for refocussing current spending (“We spend a fortune on the fortunate”), by shifting from responding to problems to preventing them in the first place.

What the reports have in common is their focus on growing inequality, the costs (listed in the first report, quantified in the second), and an articulated need to narrow the gap between the wealthy and the marginalized in Canada.

Civil legal aid in decline?

Like many components of Canada’s social safety net, legal aid beyond the charity of individual lawyers has its roots in World War II, when legal aid was provided to members of the Canadian Armed Forces and their dependents.  (For a solid historical background on legal aid from its origins to its state as of 2004, read the Library of Parliament publication entitled “Legal Aid in Canada.” Not much has changed since that time.)

While it took another twenty years before there was cost-sharing between federal and provincial governments for criminal legal aid.  A decade later, provincial spending on civil legal aid by provincial governments was matched by federal funds through the Canada Assistance Plan. Since that plan ended in 1996, the federal government transfers block funds to provincial governments with few strings attached, and on a per-capita, rather than matched-funds, basis.

According to the Canadian Bar Association, this was the beginning of significant access problems, especially for civil legal aid, which covers all matters not related to the Criminal Code: family law, refugee and immigration law, appeals of social services rulings, or even decisions by utility boards to terminate services.  In this 2006 submission to the United Nations Committee on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights in the context of its consideration of Canada’s compliance with the Convention on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, the CBA concluded with a strong recommendation:

The federal government of Canada should provide targeted funds to support civil legal aid. In co-ordination with provincial and territorial governments, the federal government of Canada should guarantee effective national standards pertaining to coverage, eligibility and adequacy of civil legal aid.

Earlier this month, Statistics Canada released its report on legal aid resources and case load statistics for 2008-2009.  Providing very detailed expenditure and usage data by province, and historically for three years, the report demonstrates that in most provinces, considerably less funding is provided for civil legal aid matters than for criminal matters, and that funding for civil legal aid is declining over time in some provinces. These trends apply for both direct legal expenditures and all expenditures (including administration and other non-legal expenditures).

Except in Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta, staff lawyers provide more civil legal aid representation than private lawyers.  Only in Quebec and Ontario are more legal aid applications received for civil than criminal legal aid.  At the same time, only in Quebec and Ontario is the percentage of civil legal aid applications accepted approximately the same (and a little higher) than the acceptance rate for criminal legal aid applications.

A 2005 court challenge by the Canadian Bar Association to argue for the constitutional right to civil legal aid was rejected in the British Columbia Supreme Court, and in the BC Court of Appeal in 2008.

In a news release following a federal/provincial/territorial meeting of justice ministers, the provincial and territorial ministers renewed the urgent need for federal funding for civil legal aid, particularly in light of rising numbers of cases associated with immigrants and refugees.

Triage: Three Canadian reports worth reading

In a week filled with reports just released and materials just discovered, the task of choosing just three for weekend reading was especially challenging.  (Those not covered here will likely find themselves in future entries.)  However, there are three rich reports for your reading pleasure.

The first is the recent summary of the 13th annual benchmarking report by the Conference Board of Canada, ranking Canada’s socio-economic performance against that of peer countries. Entitled How Canada Performs: A Report Card on Canada, the report assesses Canada on several dimensions: economy, innovation, environment, education and skills, health, and society. [Note: You will have to register for free access to this document.]

The report shows that the United Kingdom has moved from 16th out of 17 countries in terms of child poverty rates; by 2009, it had moved to 9th place,  the same position Canada holds on overall social performance.  However, the report also shows that inequality and poverty rates have increased in Canada from 1995 to 2005; in fact, the Conference Board reports that poverty among children, working age adults and seniors rose in that period, by approximately three percentage points in each case.

The fullest details of this report are available on-line, with analysis on each theme released as it becomes available.

The second recommended report is the from the Quality of Life surveys conducted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the organization representing local governments and the cities they represent in the federal policy arena. Known for its emphasis on local fiscal capacity, physical infrastructure, urban safety and recently housing, this year the organization has issued a report entitled Mending Canada’s frayed social safety net: The role of municipal governments.

From the President’s opening message, the findings of the report are clear:

“As Canada slowly recovers from the recent recession and governments contemplate balancing their budgets, this report makes clear the human cost of allowing the traditional social safety net to fray while ignoring the growing demands on our cities’ social infrastructure.

From their position on the front line, municipal governments cannot turn away from need in their communities. Other governments have a choice: to retreat still further, exacerbating current trends, or acknowledge that all governments must share in helping Canadians and their communities through difficult times. Much depends on their choices.”

Like the Conference Board report’s assessment of the most significant social problem as poverty, the FCM report identifies  growing populations among vulnerable groups, persistent poverty even during the previous period of economic growth, and what it calls the “erosion of traditional social policy tools”, to result in fraying social safety net facing increasing demands on limited municipal resources. The report, again like the Conference Board report, points to increasing poverty and inequality in Canada, especially in comparison to other OECD members.  The charts comparing urban communities to each other, while showing changes over time within cities, demonstrate that while the percentage of families receiving social assistance has declined in most cities from 2000 to 2005, the percentage of working poor families has increased, suggesting that poverty hasn’t changed; only the source of low incomes has shifted.  The charts also demonstrate that with the notable exceptions of Regina, Saskatoon and Halifax, welfare incomes as a percentage of income needed to meet basic needs have declined from 2000 to 2005.

Other charts provide dramatic visual representations of the disproportionate disadvantage (poverty, unemployment, and so on) faced by particular groups in virtually every city in Canada, notably recent immigrants, people with disabilities and Aboriginal peoples.

A second major section of the report considers municipal social infrastructure, including social housing, emergency shelters, public transit, child care, and recreation services, again demonstrating the inability for these services to keep pace with rising demand.

Finally, the third recommended read is of a different nature, and comes from the Preston Manning Centre, a source of research and training materials explicitly focused on conservative approaches and solutions in public policy.  Entitled the Manning Centre Barometer, it is described as “an annual look at Canadians’ attitudes towards values and policies generally ascribed to Conservatives.”

A 56-slide presentation earlier this month was divided into three parts: perception of Canadians of values “typically associated with conservatives;” perceptions of specific conservative policies; and how “the political centre is becoming more conservative and the potential fault lines associated with this shift.”

In the first part, support for values ranged from 89% strongly agreeing that nothing is more important than family, to 8% strongly agreeing that people who are poor have no-one to blame but themselves.

Some of the results were very close: for example, according to this presentation, 44% of respondents thought the government should play a minor role in “reducing differences in income levels between those with high and low earnings,” 38% thought government should play a major role, and only 18% though government should play no role.  In a later slide, this is summarized as “most do not want government to do more to reduce income inequality.”

At the same time, almost 85% of respondents thought government should play a major role in managing the economy, and only 1% thought it should play no role at all.

The presentation identified the centre as the most popular position on the political scale and proceeds to compare centrists and conservatives with some interesting observations under the heading of “commonalities”: 51% of centrists and 58% of conservatives think government should have a major role in promoting/preserving Canada’s official languages; while 84% of centrists and 63% of conservatives agree that Canada’s health care system should not include private hospitals. Also, 80% of centrists and 72% of conservatives agree that government should do more to support embryonic stem cell research.

While many of the findings were surprising to me, readers may find others not cited here as most interesting.  Please leave comments on this one!

Hidden gems: Community information database

In a conversation with a friend and colleague, who happens to be a social geographer, I mentioned the Community Information Database, only to discover she’d never heard of it.  She suggested I post about in my blog, and here it is – the first of many hidden gems I hope to bring to readers’ attention.

The Community Information Database (CID), developed by the Rural Secretariat with the cooperation of provincial and territorial governments, is intended to be

a free internet-based resource developed to provide communities, researchers, and governments with access to consistent and reliable socio-economic and demographic data and information for all communities across Canada.

And it delivers.  Despite a clunky interface, and a steep learning curve that can’t be bypassed, in my experience, the CID provides a rich source of information about all communities, including urban ones, with data from the 1996, 2001, and 2006 Census.  In fact, more than 500 pieces of data can be retrieved for all of Canada, by province, region, Census Metropolitan area, Census subdivision, or regional health district.

The data can be found within broad categories including population, language, immigration and citizenship, Aboriginal peoples, education, employment and work, income, families, housing, economic sectors, health, crime, and community-established benchmarks. A complete list of indicators is also provided.

One of the purposes of the database, at the time of its inception, was to allow communities to establish baseline data when launching an initiative, and to monitor changes, as part of the evaluation process for that initiative.  Its depth and breadth makes it useful for similar purposes at higher levels of aggregation, as well as providing useful historical comparisons for purposes of program and policy design and assessment.

My hat is off the initiators of this resource.

The top four non-Canadian sources for connected social policy wonks

In the second post on this blog, entitled “The top five Canadian sources for connected social policy wonks,” I promised to deal with sources from outside Canada in a future post.  The time has come; this is that post.

One of the best, I think, is from Australia, entitled (appropriately) Australian Policy Online, is edited by the Social Research Institute of the Swinburne University of Technology.  It covers a wide range of public policy themes, including creative economy, economics, education, indigenous affairs, international, justice, and finally social policy.

Despite the value of the division into these themes, I find that virtually all their posts are related to social policy in some way.  For example, quick links on the home page include citizenship, immigration, poverty, and social problems. And to make it even more useful, it’s possible to subscribe to a “weekly briefing” by email, which can include all the themes, or can be customized to your specific interests.  Finally, it includes links to relevant video and websites, not just articles, press releases and reports, and it often goes beyond Australia to point to interesting new reports and programs from other countries or international bodies.

Speaking of international bodies, another of the best is from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, which was formed and is funded by most developed countries (who are committed to democracy and a market economy), with a mandate to provide “a setting where governments compare policy experiences, seek answers to common problems, identify good practice and coordinate domestic and international policies.”

Much of their invaluable research is available only to subscribers, many of whom are public and university libraries.  However, a lot of the highlights of its work is posted on its Facebook page, and working papers are available without cost on-line.  A recent one worthy of attention, for example, is entitled Minimum Income Benefits in OECD Countries, published in January 2010, which demonstrates that Canada offers the seventh-lowest minimum income benefits (social assistance) to singles without children (on page 14),  and second-lowest in minimum wage (page 17).

The OECD also offers RSS feeds (which you can use to get content delivered to your computer) by theme, by type of information, and/or by countries that might interest you.  It can be a lens on economic and social policy among advanced nations.

For a UK take on public policy questions, with an explicit left/centrist point of view, the Institute for Public Policy Research provides original research in the context of specific research projects, currently Global Change; and Citizens, Society and Economy. In a more general sense, its research themes include migration and integration, housing, welfare and poverty, crime and justice, children and families, and health and social care.

Publications from this Institute are usually available for download without charge, and often consist of short documents that will provide sources for you to delve more deeply into a subject of particular interest.  The Institute makes information available in a number of ways.  For example, it offers podcasts (which include recent speeches by senior politicians seeking re-election as audio of the speech itself, or one that includes the question and answer period) or transcripts of key speeches. It also offers an email newsletter, or RSS feeds of notices of new works.

The last source I find most useful is a site called “Information for Practice,” sponsored by the New York University School of Social Work and the Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s Division of Social Work and Behavioral Practice. This site is the work of one individual (Dr. Gary Holden, currently at NYU, formerly at the Mount Sinai med school), and it tracks and accumulates news story headlines, videos, images and books. Its mission is “to help social service professionals throughout the world conveniently maintain an awareness of news regarding the profession and emerging scholarship.”

One of its greatest contributions, in my opinion, is its tracking (and accumulation) of grey literature, which the Ottawa University library defines as “documents and ephemeral material issued in limited amounts outside the formal channels of publication and distribution.”  As this includes reports prepared by non-government organizations, it is often especially valuable for tracking research that may or may not find its way into scholarly journals.  This material covers such subjects as child welfare, drug treatment research and programs, health care, and family policy.

In addition to being continuously updated as a website, this service provides a monthly digest to email subscribers, and an RSS feed of grey literature.  It is voluminous, but in a reader, it can be scanned quickly, to pick up the gems of most direct interest to any particular subscriber.  I have found that it’s worth the effort.  And finally, the website can be searched, to find at last some historical information for particular research projects.

There are more, of course, but these four cover most of the world (or at least the English-speaking portions of it), and provide information that is timely, reliable, and reputable. Enjoy.