Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 27, 2004
Advice for the Alberta Advantage
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Dear Mr. Premier:
You have invited Albertans to engage in a public debate over exactly what to do with our budgetary surplus dollars in view of the retirement of our provincial debt. All of the options already floated - for example, lowering taxes, issuing individual dividends to every Alberta resident, directing the surplus to the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, or spending on a variety of services and infrastructure needs - represent noble and worthy causes.
However, I would like to share a few thoughts with you, based on my contact and ministry with people.
An economy of paradoxes
Our economy is booming but we're in an economy of paradoxes. Some live in gated communities and some live in boxes under bridges. The stock market and the price for oil and natural gas go up and up yet many of us wonder whether our children will live as well as we do. Our economy is among the most productive and powerful on earth, but in a real sense it is not one economy, it's three.
In the first economy, people are pulling ahead. Well-educated, highly motivated people are managing investment, creating jobs, maximizing trade with great economic and personal rewards. They are doing very well economically and in other ways. They're moving ahead.
In a second economy, people are being left behind. Hundreds, perhaps more accurately, thousands of families are without jobs, fathers, a decent income, or a decent place to live. The hungry and homeless in our midst, the immigrants and the migrants that in our communities and our towns, have been left behind.
Their question is not whether the price of oil will keep rising, but will I be able to pay the rent? Can I afford shoes for my kids? Will we be able to stay together and pay the rent? They are falling even further behind. Discrimination, racism and sexism, of course, make all of these problems worse.
Then there's a third economy where most of us live; where we're doing fine at one level, but we feel vulnerable. Will we keep our jobs? Will we keep our health? Can we afford higher education for our kids? Why are we working harder for less, two jobs, three jobs, four jobs in a family? We're being squeezed. Sadly, it is our children who pay the greatest price for this "winner take all, every person for oneself" economy.
As we celebrate the centennial of our province, we should commit to the restoration of a situation or an environment that promotes equity and harmony, "shalom," in a community.
The Hebrew word "mispat" is a word regularly found in the Psalms and in the words of the prophets, especially when God is portrayed as having a special concern for the poor, the widow, the fatherless and the oppressed. It refers to basic human rights and to the restorative acts of repairing the world. It involves practising fidelity to the demands of a relationship. People who work for a living should not live in poverty nor should they raise a family in poverty.
Please consider the numbers. Over 12 per cent of all individuals in Calgary lived below the low income cut-off (LICO) lines in 2000; 11.7 per cent of children and 16.4 per cent of seniors over age 65 lived below the LICO. Over 22,000 Calgarians relied on social assistance in December 2002.
In 2002, 1,737 Calgarians were homeless - an increase of 34 per cent from 2000. In Calgary, as many as 50 per cent of the people living in homeless shelters are employed. A person earning minimum wage would have to spend 70 per cent of his or her gross income to afford the average rent of $716 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. Additional expenses for other necessities such as food, utilities, clothing, transportation and child care mean that many families are forced to make difficult choices in order to reach a subsistence standard of living.
In 2002, 48,311 Calgarians received food hampers, up 11 per cent from 2001. In Calgary, 31.8 per cent of the visible minority population and 50.6 per cent of people of aboriginal identity live in poverty.
The wealth-poverty ratio in Calgary is significantly higher than it is for Alberta and Canada. Census figures for 2001 show that the poorest 10 per cent of the Calgary population had an average annual income of $13,000 while those in the top 10 per cent average annual incomes of $248,600.
These numbers are frightening and indicative of the suffering of so many in the face of plenty.
The dilemma facing many parents is what do I have to give up to put my child in dance lessons or to purchase a much-needed winter coat? For families in a constant state of financial distress, just paying for a prescription may deplete their small grocery budget and mean they have to rely on the food bank by the end of the month.
Their question is not whether the price of oil will keep rising, but will I be able to pay the rent?
Help for families
Lack of time and money make it difficult for many workers to improve their education, a step that could lead to more stable, higher paying jobs. It also becomes difficult to take the time to enhance their children's life experience. This means going without extracurricular activities that many of us take for granted for our families and children - trips to the zoo, dance and music lessons, birthday parties, participating in sports and other school activities.
The road map out of financial distress is complex and requires addressing a range of issues.
Without attempting to be exhaustive, assisting a family would mean providing opportunities to acquire: stable, safe and affordable housing in a safe neighbourhood; stable employment at a living wage; access to employee benefits packages; social services supports to work through times of crisis; assuring that kids receive proper nutrition, extra-curricular learning and recreational opportunities; and literacy and access to training opportunities.
Such assistance to families would be a prophetic sign to the rest of Canada of The Alberta Advantage. Thanks for considering my reflections.
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