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Moving poverty debate to the front burner

WELLAND – Where is poverty in the provincial election campaign which gets underway officially today?

Health care, education, green energy and the economy rank as top issues for voters, according to news stories and polls.

While poverty is becoming higher profile these days, it still may not be a top issue in the minds of many Ontarians.

A concerted effort is being made during the campaign to move poverty from the back burner to the front for more people.

Front-line workers and volunteers already know that is where it should be.

Others may still be in need of convincing.

The initiative is being led by two groups: Poverty Free Ontario and the Interfaith Social Assistance Reform Coalition (ISARC).

It is making headway in the province with faith communities and social justice groups in more than 20 communities already on board.

In Ontario, 1.7 million people live in poverty, the highest poverty rate in the past 30 years.

Statistics tell the story of poverty in our province and it is not a pretty picture:

Ontario’s poverty rate is rising sharply. As evidenced by more than 400,000 people using food banks last year, up 28% from the 2008 total, 314,250;

At the current minimum wage in Ontario, a person working full-year, full-time earns $1,064 below the poverty line;

One-third of all children living in poverty in Canada in 2008 were in families with a parent working full-year, full-time;

In Canada 50% of people living in poverty have some post-secondary education and 45% of the unemployed had a post-secondary education or degree.

I am not making up the numbers, they are provided by Poverty Free Ontario and are based on responsible research.

In addition, other reliable resources about poverty in Ontario and Canada are available and worthy of study. Three of the many include: Persistent Poverty, voices from the margins (the most recent book from ISARC, available at Welland library); Hunger Count 2010, a comprehensive report on hunger and food bank use in Canada with recommendations for change, from Food Banks Canada; and Fighting Hunger — Who’s Hungry? by the Daily Bread Food Bank. Both are available on the agencies’ websites on the Internet.

Though it was released four years ago, A Legacy of Poverty? Addressing Cycles of Poverty and the Impact of Poverty on Child Health in the Niagara Region provided startling, eye-opening statistics about poverty’s inroads in the region.

If anything, some of the findings and statistics in that study are probably worse today.

We need to be bothered by what is going on in Ontario — not just in big places like Toronto, but right here in our own backyard.

There are too many stories about how local agencies are struggling, groaning, under the workload and weight of poverty-related problems.

Some questions, offered here as food for thought:

Why do so many schools have breakfast programs to help children who come to school hungry or lacking proper nutrition get through the morning?

Why are food banks — our emergency food providers — continually searching for new ways to raise food to help fill their shelves? Why has their plight of more demand and fewer resources become a refrain with which we are too familiar?

Why do people on social assistance have to choose between buying food or paying the utility bills or monthly rent?

Why are new words creeping into our vocabulary? A generation ago, we did not know about much, let alone discuss, “food insecurity” but it is now part of regular usage. Why do we have families who live in the shadows of “food insecurity” — not having access to enough food to meet basic needs — day after day for some of them?

And so we have Poverty Free Ontario and ISARC embarking on a non-partisan initiative, Let’s Vote for a Poverty Free Ontario which, if successful, just may lift poverty a few rungs higher on the provincial issues campaign ladder.

Its sign campaign, being launched Sept. 15 in Welland and Port Colborne, is groundbreaking in more ways than one.

It will do much in fostering and promoting solidarity among people of social conscience. It gets off the ground in Welland at St. Kevin’s church, 303 Niagara St., and in Port Colborne at Bridges Community Health Centre, 177 King St.

Lori Kleinsmith, the health promoter at Bridges, says in a new release: “Finding a balance between charity and justice is not easy.

“Food banks and other assistance programs provide many ways of helping people manage conditions of poverty a little better, but do not truly address eradicating poverty. The persistence of poverty across Ontario reflects a failure of collective responsibility to create basic conditions health and well-being for all.”

Something to think about, and take action on, as we move into a provincial election campaign.

See story and photo about the Faith to End Poverty Campaign in Thursday’s edition of The Tribune.




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