As a society, we have become rather complacent and accepting of the fact there is income inequality in our community and that many are and will continue to live in poverty.
That is not to suggest we aren’t a charitable and giving community when it comes to supporting a cause or helping a neighbour in need. Our efforts, though, are more a Band-Aid approach to dealing with a much larger social issue.
Fortunately, we have a group of community activists who have been prepared to tackle the problem of poverty head on and municipal leadership who are committed to developing policies that hopefully will reduce poverty in this community. A number of stakeholders from several social agencies, not for profit groups, health and education came together last week at a Town of Amherst sponsored municipal forum entitled Poverty Lives Here.
The forum heard sobering and yet enlightening messages from two keynote presenters along with the real life stories of Amherst and area residents who struggle each and every day to make ends meet.
Each story illustrated the barriers so many of our friends and neighbors face each day as single parent youths living on income assistance; underemployed individuals without transportation and working for minimum wage; as a person with a disability; as a senior on a fixed income; or as a member of a visible minority with little formal education. These are just some of the examples of the faces of poverty living amongst us in our community.
Christine Saulnier, the Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, presented the forum delegates with a statistical analysis of what poverty looks like here.
The forum was told 30 per cent of Cumberland County's children live in poverty and 44 per cent of workers in the county earn below $20,000 per year. In the case of Amherst, overall 25.3 percent of our residents live in poverty.
The most vulnerable citizens in our community are women over 65 and Saulnier says while government support works through pensions, its impact has decreased in recent years because it has not kept pace with the cost of living. And for those on Employment Insurance, 55 per cent of wage replacement is simply too low. Another revealing aspect of her presentation was the correlation between health care and poverty. Health care gaps and barriers to access exacerbate health problems which can cause poverty. Simply put, poverty is bad for your health. Unfortunately, a job isn’t an automatic ticket out of poverty and as Saulnier indicates, it is not possible to live on the current minimum wage.
Town officials have been presented with a variety of suggestions emerging from the various discussion groups on everything from homelessness to affordable housing, transportation to youth initiatives and social justice.
The challenge now is for our municipal leadership to take the steps necessary to shape a policy that will indeed address this issue. As sociologist and social worker Robert Wright boldly declared at the end of the forum … “it is time to do our part and tell poverty it can no longer welcome here and must be evicted.”
The forum was certainly a good first start and rather than leaving it up to municipal government now to shape a policy, the onus should be on all the stakeholders who participated in this one-day event to help in shaping the town’s overall strategic plan for reducing poverty.
Geoff deGannes is the past chairman of the Tantramar Radio Society. His daily commentaries can be heard on 107.9 CFTA.