Last Friday, the B.C. legislature’s Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services, which is made up of six Liberal and four NDP MLAs, released its report based on extensive community consultations on the next provincial budget. The report includes a recommendation to explore the development of “a comprehensive and integrated poverty reduction strategy, including legislated timelines and targets for the reduction of poverty (including child poverty) and homelessness in B.C. (Also featured in The Vancouver Sun).
This is the third time that this all-party committee has unanimously agreed to make this recommendation. Perhaps this year the provincial government will listen and include this much-needed priority in the 2016 budget. After all, B.C. has had one of the highest poverty rates in Canada for the last 13 years and is now the very last province without a poverty reduction strategy.
Also last week, new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took the unprecedented step of publicly releasing all ministerial mandate letters. One of the top priorities noted in the letter for the minister of families, children and social development is leading “the development of a Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy that would set targets to reduce poverty and measure and publicly report on [their] progress, in collaboration with the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.” Trudeau adds that the strategy “will align with and support existing provincial and municipal poverty reduction strategies.”
With this strong commitment at the federal level, the time has come for B.C. to initiate a strategy that can then be supported. Otherwise, we risk being further left behind.
Instead of taking a comprehensive and preventive approach to poverty, our provincial government has been running “community poverty reduction strategies” in B.C. for the last three years. Started as a pilot in seven communities (Cranbrook, Kamloops, New Westminster, Port Hardy, Prince George, Stewart and Surrey), this initiative has “provided services to 96 families” in total, the September 2015 progress report states. Compared to the number of people living in poverty in B.C. — approximately 496,000 according to the most conservative measure, and the far larger number living one or two paycheques away — that really is a drop in the ocean.
Some good measures have come out of the initiative, including Cranbrook taking a leading role in providing free transit passes to low-income people, but the limited scope of the project maintains its lack of impact. Funding is merely provided for a part-time family consultant within the Ministry of Children and Family Development whose role is to help families access existing supports and navigate bureaucratic hurdles.
Despite the “themes and issues that are important to people living in poverty” as identified by these consultants, such as the unaffordability of child care, lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs (including “working two jobs and still not making ends meet”), and the inadequacy of income assistance rates, there is no new investment in policy changes that would address these issues and have a far greater impact.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM), which serves as the avenue for local governments to advocate to higher levels of government, was initially involved in these community strategies but recently announced that it is concluding its participation. In its statement, UBCM highlights that “communities feel that only so much can be done at the local level, and that provincial and federal governments need to step in and play a greater role.” In this light, the City of Prince George is also stepping away from this initiative.
The provincial government’s community poverty reduction strategies were in fact started in response to a unanimous recommendation at the 2010 UBCM convention for a provincial poverty reduction plan for B.C., which was brought forward by a number of cities through an organized campaign by the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition. Now, UBCM is returning to that original call. “Moving forward, UBCM will continue to advocate for a provincial poverty plan. We feel this has the greatest potential to affect change on poverty reduction in B.C., and encourage the provincial government to undertake this work.”
This week, the annual report from Food Banks Canada, HungerCount, shows that over 100,000 people access food banks in a typical month in B.C., an increase of three per cent from last year. The report recognizes both the necessity and also the limitations of food banks in response to poverty and hunger, and includes a number of strong policy recommendations to tackle the root causes.
More and more voices are joining the call for a comprehensive approach to poverty. When will our provincial government start listening?
Trish Garner is the community organizer of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and Adrienne Montani is the provincial coordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition