Fighting poverty

Major attitude shift needed
July 10, 2008

The working group on poverty reduction appointed by the provincial government last December released its draft report recently and immediately invoked the ire of activists by insisting on waiting for a year to actually take action to reduce poverty. In an article in the Herald on July 1, Co-chair of Community Action on Homelessness, Wayne McNaughton pointedly asked why this was the case and why the government was not ready with costed-out proposals for responding to the report. Why indeed?

What people may or may not realize is that the measures required to meaningfully address poverty in Nova Scotia are substantial and would only come about as a result of a massive change of attitude and approach – not quite a paradigm shift, but something akin to that. I wonder if anyone has the stomach for it, frankly.

You see, poverty’s “inconvenient truth” is that it is structured into our social and economic systems and to dig into this quagmire will take more than feel-good sentiment and a dash of political will. It will take money, and lots of it. The good news is that it would probably be as much a spending shift as a spending increase once the savings in health care and social services and the like were factored in. But I wonder if voters would buy that, just as I wonder if they would by the federal Liberals’ “green shift” idea.

Why do we go on studying poverty and recommending policy revisions for decades, yet no real progress is achieved? It’s not that we don’t understand what needs to be done: affordable housing, better wages, higher welfare rates, an affordable public transportation system, etc. It’s not that we haven’t grasped the suffering of the people directly affected, examples of which have been portrayed in this newspaper and other news media. We seem not to be prepared yet to shift our priorities and demand that our governments make the necessary investments. Were we to demand that, they would have to comply. If they did not, we would vote them out of office. That’s how it works, right?

The voter can be forgiven for this lack of decisiveness. Governments are quite good at making it look like they really are addressing poverty. Government-speak on affordable housing is a prime example. That same July 1 article I mentioned ends on a cheery note, with the government spokeswoman stating that 1,000 new affordable housing units have been created since 2005, with around $44 million spent. Well, that sounds like significant progress. Unfortunately, government’s upbeat affordable housing messages take on a rather dull complexion when the whole picture comes into view. Consider the following:

1) They’re not all new homes. Many are existing dwellings that have been renovated and will simply continue to serve that segment of the market. So the image of low-income renters now having access to 1,000 new apartments is a bit misleading.

2) Virtually no new affordable housing has been built in this province during the past decade, and very little was built leading up to that period. Meanwhile, the need for housing has mounted and our already old housing stock went right on ageing. During this time, poverty and the attendant need for low-cost housing showed no sign of letting up. Welfare shelter rates were stagnant during the ‘90s, then they were reduced for several years. They were increased recently by very small amounts. To say there is pent-up demand is quite an understatement.

3) The proportion of people in “core housing need” (paying more than 30% of total income to shelter) in this province is estimated by Canada Mortgage and Housing to be 22.6%. According to the 2006 Census, there are 376,830 households Nova Scotia. At 22.6% that works out to around 80,000 households in core need. So we can guesstimate that 79,000 households are left in the lurch. What would it cost to meet even half of that need, given that it took $44 million to develop the 1,000 units?

The painful truth is that affordable housing development, a key poverty alleviation strategy, has been so pitifully neglected by all levels of government for so long that it’s hard to imagine what it would take to fix it.

Finally, we come to the prospect of increasing welfare rates, a fixation of mine for decades. (Bear in mind that this measure would never see the light of day unless the minimum wage went up too.) Let’s consider an across-the-board increase for all recipients of $75 per month. With approximately 30,000 recipients, that works out to $2.25 million monthly, or $27 million annually, over current spending.

Would any government actually do that? If they did, would they hold onto power? I would bet that in the prevailing ideological climate, the answer would be a resounding “No”. Why? Because most people steadfastly cling to the assumption that welfare recipients must be subjected to “tough love” in the form of severe poverty lest they get comfortable on the system.

That notion ignores the fact that the vast majority are on welfare because they have no other option. But the truth of the matter doesn’t do anything to change the prevailing belief that all those people could just get jobs and stop leaning on the good working taxpayers of the province. The way our government frames social assistance dependency as universally undesirable, and striving toward employment as the only road to redemption, reinforces that erroneous belief. Rarely do they acknowledge the legitimacy of providing for people who are temporarily or permanently unable to work.

What is the answer? Can we really develop and implement an effective poverty reduction strategy? Has anyone figured out what the costs – and the savings – might be? My worst fear is that someone has, but for obvious reasons that information will not be divulged. I really hope I’m wrong about that.

Am I saying we should give up on reducing poverty? Absolutely not. I’m saying that unless people have a profound attitude shift, especially the people leading this province, we’ll never make meaningful progress on this one. Hopefully, we’ll figure out in the coming months how to make that shift.

Katherine Reed is a research associate with the CCPA-NS and the author of the CCPA publication Fairness in Education for Single Parents in Nova Scotia (2005). She has worked at the Antigonish Women's Resource Centre for 20 years on women's poverty issues. This editorial first appeared in The Chronicle Herald.