The following observations of the Minister’s consultation on poverty reduction in Sudbury on May 26, 2008 are offered by Annette Reszczynski.
Minister Deb Matthews welcomed approximately 45 people to the Sudbury consultation. In attendance were representatives from the City, the health sector, social service organizations, the Aboriginal community, the education sector and antipoverty advocacy groups as well as individuals with first hand experience of living in poverty.
The meeting began with each small group appointing a facilitator and note taker and then groups quickly got down to the business of discussing the questions posed by the Ministry. The first questions focused on how the lives of impoverished children and their families could be improved within current resources. The next questions asked about current successes at the local level and how the efforts of various sectors could be better integrated to address poverty. The final questions asked participants to comment on the long term goals of the strategy and how the effectiveness of the strategy should be measured.
All of the questions garnered lots of discussion and participants were pretty vocal about the questions that they felt did not do justice to the subject. For example, it was clear that most participants felt that current resources available at the individual level and in the non-profit social service sector were inadequate to make a truly meaningful improvement in the lives of children and their families living in poverty. Comments were made that reducing poverty requires long term investment even if it meant an increase in taxes.
Organizations charged with helping people cope expressed feeling very stretched, with many not having had an increase in their operating dollars since 1995. An increase in social assistance rates along with an increase in the minimum wage, it was felt, would lift those most in need out of immediate crisis freeing people up to focus on exiting poverty vs. trying to survive poverty. Organizations could then in turn free up resources to do more planning and evaluation maximizing opportunities to build partnerships and deliver effective programs and services.
Participants felt programs and services offered by the provincial and federal government needed to be better coordinated to reduce duplication and redundancy and that efforts to connect upper levels of government with those groups working multisectorally at the community level needed to be stepped up.
In terms of long term goals, participants felt that reducing poverty in Ontario had to be about more than ensuring everyone has an opportunity to be gainfully employed. Individuals who cannot work full time, or at all, also have a right to an adequate income, and a life of dignity. While education and training is vitally important, that cannot be the sole focus of the strategy.
A participant from North Bay told the following story illustrating this point well. Several years ago he found himself alone as a single father with no job and decided to send his son to live with relatives in the US for two months. Despite his best efforts he ended up homeless for an extended period of time but eventually made his way to college where he recently graduated. The down side to this story was that the two months that his son was supposed to be away in order for him to get his feet on the ground turned into two years. That’s a long time for a child. An effective poverty reduction strategy would prevent these types of scenarios and their negative long term impacts.