First published: November 16, 2007
Plans to develop an anti-poverty strategy for Northumberland County should be welcomed news for many who live in the margins of our community.
It appears social activists, institutional and agency leaders and the poor themselves will join to review the current conditions, program and services for those who struggle on fixed government pensions, both seniors and the disabled; those who cannot find work; or, those who work, but cannot make enough money to live.
Kawartha Pine Ridge District School Board education director Sylvia Terpstra gave a grave assessment of the current situation to social justice forum held in Port Hope late last week.
“Unfortunately, I see poverty rising,” she told the attendees.
Northumberland County residents do make an effort to raise awareness and to assist those who are less fortunate. Earlier this month, Cobourg’s two high schools supported the Make Poverty History campaign with a host of activities including the recitation of a poverty pledge, along with a number of fun things and lots of information that was distributed.
Also, Port Hope Character Committee ran the Domino Cereal Event, where everyone was asked to drop off a box of cereal at drop boxes throughout the town. These were then lined up in the recreation centre gym, like dominos, and then pushed over to create a domino effect. The town collected well over 2,000 boxes, much higher than the 1,329 boxes of cereal collected last year.
While children living in poverty are a high concern, seniors also face incredible hardship when they are living on a fixed income of government pensions plans and supplements. The lack of affordable housing means anywhere from a one to three year wait for accommodations geared to income. It also means the level of care, when they do arrive in a seniors residence can be exceeding low, depending on the staffing levels. Ontario Federation of Labour President Wayne Samuelson told the social justice meeting last week about the 75 per cent rule, where some long-term care patients are left to lie or sit in urine filled incontinence products due to a lack of staff.
These are horrific accusations to make and he was speaking generally, rather than specifically about seniors’ homes in Northumberland. Still, it is a shocking image and something the newly formed organization must pursue.
Another group in need of help are the working poor. For those working a 40-hour week at a job paying $10 per hour, means a person’s after tax income would be around $20,800 barely enough for an individual to pay rent on a bachelor apartment and pay for basics. Housing prices continue to rise and apartment rents follow suit. Meanwhile, a program to financially help landlords to ensure a decent supply of affordable apartments exists is not used.
Peterborough Mayor Paul Ayotte made poverty reduction a major priority for his council almost immediately after he was elected last year. It came up with 11 recommendations, but no money. Beyond several obvious motherhood statements like people in poverty deserve to live with dignity, there was very little that was truly innovative. Affordable housing, good paying jobs, better public transit, reviewing certain benefit programs and to raise public awareness through education programs were some of the suggestions made by the committee. Of course, the report also demands the federal and provincial governments do more?
Northumberland’s poverty forum came up with nearly the same list last year at its event. Back in October 2006, the organizers called for higher minimum wage, substantially increased welfare and disability rates, basic dental care, improved mental health services, transportation and a few other ideas. This is not a slight against the group, but it clearly demonstrates the commonalities.
Those people who live on the edge of a financial crisis every day do not need more social programs they need justice. Municipal leaders barely address social issues head on. Northumberland County sadly lacks affordable housing. A committee has been studying the issue for nearly a year with little results and lots of promises. While Peterborough’s mayor has come up with little that is concrete, at least he showed the leadership to undertake a massive consultation and engage the community on this vital issue.
The Northumberland committee working on the anti-poverty strategy faces a tough road. Already major players in health and education are at the table. Also, representatives from the community will also serve, including people who live in poverty. But, if this strategy is going to be credible and viable, then decision-makers must be engaged, as well. Political leaders need to add their voices to the cry for social justice. They must become leaders lobbying for higher minimum wages and better benefits, along with a long list of much needed reforms. When seniors can’t afford a decent roof overhead and children go hungry, we are failing the community by not acting. Let’s hope this new committee will be a lightening rod to spark change.