Edmonton targets poverty's root cause

JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Bob McKeon

June 17, 2013

Several months ago, I was invited to join the steering committee for the Edmonton Poverty Reduction Initiative. This city committee is composed of leaders from different sectors of society including city council, business, front-line social agencies, health, education, labour and different orders of government. I am there as a "faith sector" representative.

Today, municipal and provincial governments are embarking on poverty reduction initiatives all across Canada. This is a new way of addressing poverty in our communities.

Rather than seeking to lessen the hardship of those living in poverty, the goal is to address the root causes of poverty and embark on a long-term initiative to reduce the number of men, women and children living in poverty in our community. This approach builds on the experience of communities successfully engaged in 10 Year Plans to End Homelessness.

The goals are ambitious. In the last provincial election, Premier Allison Redford promised that, if elected, her government would end child poverty in Alberta within five years. Last month, Calgary city council made the commitment to reduce the number of people living in poverty in Calgary by 50 per cent within 10 years.

HAND IN HAND

These public multi-year initiatives to end homeless and reduce poverty are complementary. Both need to happen if either is to be successful.

Increasingly, the high financial and human costs associated with poverty in our community are being recognized. There are the obvious hardships and life challenges for those experiencing poverty. Poverty is a major health issue.

Andre Picard in the Globe and Mail puts it this way: "Low income is the single biggest predictor of poor health for individuals, and inequality (the gap between the richest and poorest in a society) is the best single measure of the overall health of a population."

Poverty impacts many social indicators. One striking example is the teen birth rate in Edmonton which is 10 times higher among females of low socio-economic status than among those of high socio-economic status.

ENOUGH FOR ALL

What is becoming clear in communities across Canada is that this situation can change. There are realistic and achievable alternatives. The Calgary poverty reduction report captures this spirit in its title, "Enough for All."

For Catholics, who are often on the front line day to day assisting those experiencing poverty, this new movement embodies core values of Scripture and Catholic social teaching.

Deuteronomy presents a biblical poverty elimination program with the sabbatical year. The Israelites are told that "There must be no poor among you" (15.4). Catholic social teaching consistently speaks of a preferential concern for the poor.

The steering committee for Edmonton's Poverty Elimination Initiative will report to city council later this month. This report will call for certain municipal government initiatives.

However, the challenging goal of significantly reducing poverty in Edmonton will require a commitment from all sectors of society. An important conversation that is just starting is what specific contribution faith communities can make as public conversations expand from a focus on charity to reducing and eliminating poverty.

One issue that regularly surfaces in poverty reduction conversations in Alberta is the situation of the "working poor," women and men who have jobs, but receive poverty level wages. One response is what is called a "living wage." Simply put, those who work full time should receive a living wage, an amount that makes it possible for workers to live in basic dignity.

A goal for Edmonton would be to build support among employers (government, business and non-profit) for a public commitment to pay their employees and contractors a living wage. Calgary's goal is explicit: "By 2023, 95 per cent of Calgarians will be paid at or above a living wage." Catholic churches, organizations and institutions can show leadership and commit to becoming "living wage employers."

Reducing poverty and eliminating homelessness in Canada will require continuing support from all three levels of government. Citizens for Public Justice is co-sponsoring a national campaign in support of a federal poverty reduction initiatives www.dignityforall.ca.

UNITED FRONT

Catholic parishes, organizations and individuals can add their names to the over 600 groups and 10,000 individuals who have already expressed their support.

Locally, we can make sure that continued municipal support for both eliminating homelessness and reducing poverty become important issues during our upcoming municipal elections.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)