OK, how would you respond? You’ve just been asked for advice on how to end poverty in your community. What can you suggest?
You realize that more and more folks are struggling financially, and you’ve read in the Prairie Messenger that up to 4.9 million people live in poverty in this, one of the world’s wealthiest countries. You’ve heard on the news that over 850,000 Canadians used a food bank every month in 2016. Your church collects bread and canned goods for the local soup kitchen during the weekly Sunday offertory — but when you stop to think about it, this has been done for years. The need just never seems to decrease . . .
Your children, now saddled with debts from their college studies, are having trouble finding a decent job. Earning minimum wage at the local coffee shop helps, but there are no benefits and everything seems to be spent well before the next payday. Young adults might as well put off planning for the future — housing prices are so high in the city that they may never be able to purchase a home.
Yet, at the same time, you realize things could be worse. Canadian poverty is more persistent among certain populations. A third of all newcomers to Canada live below the poverty line. Aboriginal poverty is shockingly high (69 per cent of First Nations children living on reserves in Saskatchewan, and 76 per cent in Manitoba, live in poverty). Youth not in school, children who live in lone-parent families (45 per cent), unattached older individuals (28.8 per cent) and disabled people comprise other vulnerable groups.
So it is remarkable that, for the first time in our nation’s history, the federal government is now ready to develop a federal poverty reduction strategy and has begun a national consultation process. This is something the Catholic bishops and other churches have joined anti-poverty groups in demanding for years! A historic opportunity now presents itself — but what specifically will our faith communities propose?
On Oct. 17, 1996, Canadians turned on their evening newscast to hear CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge begin, “Good evening. A blistering attack on governments across the country today, from Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops. The issue is poverty. The bishops accuse governments of using the most vulnerable people in society as human fodder in the battle against deficits. And the bishops weren’t the only ones speaking out . . .” Their pastoral letter, entitled, “The Struggle Against Poverty: A Sign of Hope for Our World,” explained the issues and recommended action.
Similar resolve from all faith communities is needed in 2017.
Since 2009, Citizens for Public Justice has co-led the Dignity for All campaign, along with Canada Without Poverty, a national organization of people with lived experiences of poverty. Over 11,000 individuals and 665 groups (including the bishops, the CWL and many religious congregations) have supported Dignity for All’s call for a national anti-poverty plan, based on legislation that can ensure robust targets, timelines and publicly reporting on progress (or lack thereof) in reducing poverty.
For our part, Citizens for Public Justice has organized three daylong workshops for faith communities, updating them on the federal government’s plans for consultation, how they can give input, and how they can have impact. Members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups were invited to share their anti-poverty advocacy work, and strategize about how we could all move forward to ensure that the federal plan is strong, accountable and promotes the dignity of all people.
Over a five-year period, we gathered expert researchers to design the best possible poverty reduction plan. Recommendations were developed in six policy areas, including income security, housing, health, food security, jobs and early childhood education and care. Dignity for All’s model anti-poverty plan can be read at https://dignityforall.ca/our-plan/
Some among us might find it too daunting to get involved at the policy level, telling government what they could or should do to reduce the burden of poverty in our communities. So CPJ has endeavoured to simplify the process, making it easier for you to share your concerns and ideas with government in just a few minutes. You can act, expressing your views online, just by going to www.cpj.ca/CPRS
No poverty plan will be immediately perfect, all-encompassing, or successful. But the federal government must hear from thousands of Canadians before the June deadline, that action on poverty reduction is the highest of moral and political priorities.
Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice, www.cpj.ca, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.