Last week I was talking with a long-time church volunteer at a food bank in my neighbourhood. She was commenting on the continuing high numbers of people coming week after week requesting a food hamper. What was especially troubling for her was that 40 per cent of those being fed from her food bank were children.
This figure is confirmed by the recent report of Food Banks Canada that in 2010, 43 per cent of Alberta clients were children, Even as the economy improves, poverty continues to be a major reality for far too many Alberta women, men and children.
In recent years, there has been a major shift in how continuing high levels of poverty are to be understood and addressed. One early sign of a new public attitude was the unanimous 1989 resolution of the House of Commons "to eliminate poverty among children by the year 2000."
This lofty goal was not matched by an action plan so the year 2000 deadline has come and gone. The only reminder of this resolution is the annual Report Card on Child and Family Poverty published by Campaign 2000, documenting how far we are from reaching this goal.
Internationally, the UN set a similar goal in the first of the Millennium Development Goals "to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger." Accompanying this was a clear measurable target "to reduce by half the proportion of people living below $1 per day," and a regular reporting framework to measure progress in achieving this goal.
These examples demonstrate a shift from a focus on managing poverty to one of reducing and eliminating poverty in Canada and globally. Since 2004, provinces, starting with Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador, have taken the lead in implementing poverty reduction/elimination programs in Canada. These programs name clear priorities, including children in poverty, low-wage workers and people with disabilities.
To date, six provinces have implemented such programs. The Ontario program contains an important public commitment: "To reduce the number of children living in poverty by 25 per cent over five years."
Pressure is building, inside and outside of government, to develop a national poverty reduction strategy.
Last month, a House of Commons committee tabled a report calling upon the federal government to "immediately commit to a federal action plan to reduce poverty in Canada."
Church groups have added their voices. In 2009, the ecumenical organization Citizens for Public Justice, helped launch Dignity for All: The Campaign for Poverty Free Canada. Last October, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its own statement "calling on our federal government to emulate the efforts of many provincial governments and develop a national anti-poverty strategy."
What about Alberta? Alberta is in a paradoxical position. Alberta is one of a minority of provinces that still has not committed to an explicit poverty reduction strategy. At the same time, Alberta is the only province to commit to a Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness.
A recent report, Time for Action, by the Edmonton Social Planning Council and Public Interest Alberta (www.edmontonsocialplanning.ca), proposes that the Alberta government use the Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness as a model "to develop its own comprehensive initiative to reduce, eliminate and prevent poverty."
The Time for Action report says that addressing child poverty should be a major provincial priority. It argues that Alberta should follow the example of Ontario and significantly raise the provincial child tax benefit for "low and modest income families."
Time for Action also describes the difficult situation of low-wage Albertans: "Over one-half of Albertans living in poverty work full-time for the full year." The report calls upon the Alberta government to raise and provide for an annual indexing of the minimum wage and for the introduction of Living Wage policies for workers employed in delivering contracted government services.
In Alberta, Church members are well represented in the front lines of those assisting women, men and children living in poverty to manage day to day. We should follow the example of our Catholic bishops at a national level in calling for a provincial poverty reduction strategy.
We should add our voices to those Albertans who are presently calling for a shift from a provincial strategy of managing poverty to one of reducing and eliminating poverty.
The time for action to end poverty in Alberta is now.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)