TORONTO - Tough economic times call for a comprehensive, nationwide strategy to prevent Canadians receiving welfare from plunging even further below the poverty line, a government advisory panel said Wednesday.

Welfare incomes in many parts of Canada are increasingly inadequate to meet basic needs, and payments have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years, a report from the National Council of Welfare suggests.

Despite breakthroughs last year in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador -- which both have anti-poverty strategies -- the number of Canadians facing hardship will likely grow, said chairman John Rook.

"When people are in tough economic times, there's fewer jobs, more people join poverty lines, more people need welfare," Rook said.

"That's when we need the provinces and the feds to step up and build poverty reduction strategies."

While clear targets, timelines and measurable indicators are required, the most important need is political will, Rook said.

"If we don't have that, we won't succeed."

The federal government is already making "significant investments" in children and families through child benefits, disability and senior assistance programs and a working income tax benefit for low- and modest-income Canadians, a spokeswoman said.

"We are certainly committed to supporting working families and helping them make ends meet," said Julie Vaux, spokeswoman for Human Resources and Skills Development Minister Diane Finley.

The report found welfare incomes for single employable people are well below the poverty line as defined by the Market Basket Measure, a tool used by the council that takes into account the cost of meeting basic needs in different parts of Canada.

In 2007, the measure was highest in Ontario and lowest in Quebec. For a single person it ranged from $13,188 to $16,456 across Canada, and from $26,375 to $32,912 for a couple with two children.

"That's not a lot of money; most of us live well above that line," Rook said.

The report did find glimmers of encouragement, highlighting successes in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.

In the case of a lone parent in Quebec with a child in preschool, welfare income for 2007 reached the poverty line, while a person in Newfoundland and Labrador meeting the same criteria would have been slightly above that line.

Rook said those findings are due in part to the fact both provinces have anti-poverty strategies in place.

"You have links in those provinces to child care and health and education and labour market policy, so there's a lot of integration of services which you don't find in other provinces," he said.

Quebec places more emphasis on co-operation between provincial and federal agencies and has a more generous welfare policy in general, said Axel van den Berg, sociology professor at Montreal's McGill University.

"Child benefits are higher and there's more support for daycare, which means that it's easier for women with children to go to work at a lower cost," van den Berg said.

"You do something about that group, you are bound to do something about poverty in general."

Last week, Ontario released a long-awaited, $1.4-billion poverty reduction strategy that aims to cut child poverty by 25 per cent in five years. The plan also calls for a review of the welfare system in the province where payments fell more than 20 per cent between 1992 and 2007.

However, that strategy differs from those in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, Rook said.

"What I didn't see was the integration with some of the other ministries," said Rook, who noted while integration is implied in the Ontario document, the Newfoundland and Labrador plan explicitly outlines such measures.

While Ontario is focused on reducing child poverty, there are many people living in poverty who aren't children, he added.

"It's a preventative strategy for the future. It may not be adequate for today."

While admitting Ontario is taking a longer-term view, the province is acting now to reduce poverty through increases in the minimum wage and child benefits, said Children and Youth Services Minister Deb Matthews.

She also disputed the assertion the plan isn't integrated enough, saying it involves many ministries and will implement "person-centred" reviews.

"Often when people live in poverty they actually need to access a number of different services," she said.

"We really want to integrate those services from the point of the individual."

The council is also concerned about the maze of rules and regulations that can trap welfare recipients.

In Alberta, for example, there's a significant rollback of assistance when people with disabilities start earning money, Rook said.

"When people try to find a way to get ahead, they're instantly penalized for it," he said.

"I think we have to really rethink a whole bunch of things around the rules, and the stigmatization, and even the use of the word welfare."

The report also noted that welfare incomes as a percentage of the Market Basket Measure ranked lowest in New Brunswick, Alberta and B.C.