Community should rise to poverty challenge

First published: November 30, 2008

As the economy spirals out of control, one of the greatest tests of residents in Northumberland County will be the ability to deal with the issue of poverty.

Four out of 10 Canadians believe they are only one or two paycheques away from living in poverty, according to the Campaign 2000 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Canada 2008. As the bruising economic news continues to get worse, it is easy to believe that number is increasing each day. Last week, the Campaign 2000 released chilling statistics, saying one child out of every nine in Canada lives in poverty. These figures have not really changed in more than 20 years.

Locally, the news is equally grim. The Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit released its report on poverty, Child Poverty: A Problem We Cannot Afford, saying those on social assistance do not have enough money for basics. A family of four on Ontario Works in Northumberland is getting more money, but it is nowhere near what is needed. Even with the various supplements, families struggle. Ontario Works predicts its caseload will rise to 800 over the next year, up from 720 current cases.

Nobody buying groceries these days will deny how much food prices have shot up over the past few months. The health unit study of six area grocery stories found a basket of basic food is now about $140.81 per week on average, up from $135.96 per week only a year ago.

Once all the most fundamental expenses are calculated, including gas and transportation (who has not felt the pain of the gas pump in the past year), personal hygiene items (soap, shampoo, etc.) a family still comes up $190 a month short.

Place this report in the context of the Northumberland Poverty Reduction Action Committee’s report from last month where participants called for income security, transportation and affordable housing. The picture is very grim.

Certainly, there are things individuals can do. Donations to the food bank, supports sponsorship programs for recreational activities, volunteer at agencies that help the poor. These are honourable and important thing to be done. Sadly, it is far more complex.

The median family income in Northumberland is $61,525, less than the provincial median family income of $69,156. Nobody in the county is truly doing well on average. The number of employers in Northumberland decreased by about three per cent between 2003 and 2007. It is so bad, a study done by the Workforce Development Board found young people 18 to 24 were leaving the county to find work.

Just to complicate matters further, the types of businesses that are opening or hiring are looking for professionals, scientific and technical services; yet, a study of the education levels for the region found people had high school, apprenticeship or a college education, not university degrees.

Not only is the situation complex, the information is contradictory. Ontario Works reported one-quarter of people on social assistance found employment. Northumberland has the second-lowest number of clients in the region and its sole-support parents are on social assistance for the short amount of time compared to similar groups in the region.

With county councillors receiving such a stellar report in October, it is easy to see why they are not overly worried. But, this is a false sense of security. More importantly, the entire issue of poverty is not being dealt with in a comprehensive manner. It will be far too easy for the provincial and federal governments to dole out money to corporations than to struggling families. To save a job means someone does not go on social assistance. It makes a lot of sense. But to those who are laid off, or run out of employment benefits or already on social assistance, it means further hardship.

Leadership is crucial. It is time for some innovative approaches and challenge the status quo. A summit of all charitable groups, from Rotary to Odd Fellows, should be called from across the county. Each organizations should be asked to suspend a portion of spending and focus on addressing poverty issues. Rather than the old rivalries, each group could contribute to create affordable housing or take on an infrastructure project that would hire local labour or something visionary for the county that would help create jobs and better the lives of those less fortunate.

This in no way impugns the great contributions these organizations make every year after year to the community. And, there may be a thousand reasons why it cannot happen. But, the bankruptcy of the local political leadership in presenting innovative solutions to problems like poverty is stunning. There is a huge possibility the Ontario Liberals will renege on it election promise to deal with poverty. At the very least, municipal councils can advocate for this priority not to be lost. But, the excruciating myopia of councillors who worry about buying harbour-dredging equipment when children starve is morally reprehensible and is an indication of the vacuum that exists.

Enough already.

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