While the findings of a new government report on poverty — housing is expensive, wages are low, and families struggle to feed their kids — may be predictable, the extent of these challenges across so many B.C. communities is an eye-opener, says the politician in charge of making this province more affordable.
“There is often a focus on Metro Vancouver, South Island, urban areas, and this report clearly identifies that issues of poverty and people struggling with the vulnerabilities of that is provincewide. It’s an issue in communities where it may seem invisible,” Shane Simpson, Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister, said in an interview Thursday.
“(The report) talks about the numbers of people who are looking for an opportunity to change their circumstance, and dismisses what at times has been a past view that people chose poverty … But in many cases they can’t even see the pathway forward to be able to (leave poverty). They are struggling with the hard work it is to live poor.”
The 60-page report, “What We Heard,” was released Thursday after members of a government-appointed advisory forum gathered input between October and March from 5,000 people about living in poverty.
At 28 community meetings and 100 small-group discussions, forum members were told housing — not necessarily owning a home, but having a safe, secure place to rent — was by far the biggest concern.
“In every part of the province, people spoke up about how high housing costs limit people’s opportunities and forces people to cut back on food, turn down the heat, and live smaller, more isolated lives,” the report said.
The report does not, though, include any recommendations for change or any estimates on how much it will cost to reduce poverty in B.C., the only province in Canada without an official poverty reduction plan.
Simpson said his ministry will table legislation in October with targets and timelines for a plan, and that the money will be allocated in the February 2019 budget.
“We’ve been creating this problem in B.C. for a very long time, and we will not solve it in a year. We know that it is going to take some time,” Simpson said, when asked if his ministry could be moving more quickly.
“I’ve heard the frustration from people who are looking for a quick fix, a quick resolve on some of these issues, — and I get it entirely — but I do feel the need to do this right.”
On the matter of housing, participants who were poor and members of certain groups, such as immigrants, First Nations, families with children, those with disabilities, and LGBTQ2S+ members, said low vacancy rates meant landlords could discriminate against them.
They called for more affordable housing; better rent controls; specific rentals for groups in need, such as seniors and youth leaving foster care; and more low-barrier housing for the homeless.
“In many communities we heard that there has been a noticeable increase in the number of people living on the street. People spoke to the lack of shelter space overall, and limits on how long those who need shelter can stay,” the report stated.
Another major issue for families was finding safe, affordable child care, especially if parents’ jobs involve shift work or part-time hours.
Participants felt judged when using food banks, but said they were a necessity. They called for incentives to increase fresh food donations to food banks; diverting food waste from grocery stores to community kitchens; expanding school meal programs; and creating more community gardens.
“Parents feel they need to keep their children at home from school because they can’t afford to adequately feed or clothe them and don’t want their children apprehended (by social services),” the report stated.
Other feedback from people living in poverty included:
• Being stuck in precarious, low-paying jobs; struggling with access to or the cost of transportation to get to work; being unable to pursue better jobs because they can’t afford the equipment or clothing necessary;
• Extending support to foster children beyond age 19, as they often fall into poverty after losing government support;
• Indexing welfare and disability payments to the cost of living, and increasing earning exemptions;
• Improving mental health and addictions services, including in rural areas, as well as culturally appropriate health care for Indigenous peoples;
• Boosting access to education and skills training programs;
• Stamping out the stigma of living in poverty, and the social isolation of not being able to afford to go out.
Trish Garner, with the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, was among the 25 people who sat on the government’s advisory panel. Her group is lobbying for a reduction plan that includes raising welfare and disability rates to close to the poverty line, as well as rent controls that prohibit landlords from jacking up rent when a tenant moves.
She is happy the B.C. NDP has already announced some investments in affordable housing and child care, but would like to see some “bolder” moves from the year-old government. “In terms of tackling the depths of poverty, we haven’t seen as much action there and we hope to see that as a priority moving forward.”
Cheryl Casimer, with the First Nations Summit, was among a group of Indigenous leaders who provided suggestions to Simpson to reduce poverty. In an interview Thursday, she said her top priority was to see affordable and safe housing addressed, especially in rural communities, because without it people often leave for urban areas where they can face more social isolation, discrimination and hardship.
All of these ideas will take time, though, and Casimer knows people are impatient for change — even some members of the advisory forum who themselves are living in poverty.
“You can hear the frustration from them that this isn’t fast enough, it’s not doing anything to change our circumstances today. And it’s understandable. But they also recognize the fact that something is now being done, because it was not on the radar of the (previous) government,” she said.
Simpson noted the NDP has already begun to address some of the challenges identified in the report, by making earlier investments in modular housing, child care, minimum wages, and adult basic education tuition.
“Can we end poverty? Not in the short term. But we can improve people’s lives. We are committed to doing that,” he said.
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