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Guelph Wellington Poverty Task Force

Thursday, November 26, 2015

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Written by Noel Mano

CAN: Could you provide a broad overview of what poverty looks like in the GW area?

STU: as many people probably imagine, we live in a pretty prosperous community, where poverty is usually quite hidden. When it does occur, it tends to be fairly concentrated in certain neighborhoods or communities more so than ours, but it definitely still exists and is an issue. Some numbers to illustrate poverty for you locally: 11 per cent of individuals in Guelph live below the low income measure, which is slightly lower than the provincial average of 13 per cent. 16 per cent of individuals in Guelph are dealing with food insecurity, and over 25 per cent of renters spend a very high percentage of their income on housing, and so are in ‘core housing need’

CAN: And so with these figures, how might it be distinct from poverty in other parts of ON or Canada?

STU: For our community, the figures are pretty typical for this part of the country. It may be distinct from places with large populations of Aboriginal peoples, and we may not face some of the issues that people face in the North or the West, but we definitely have some big issues of our own

CAN: And what might those be?

STU: Housing is a big one; in Guelph-Wellington we’re dealing with a vacancy rate of less than 1% at any given time. This makes it extremely challenging for people to find low-income housing, and when they find it, the rents are usually very high.

RAN: Stuart’s pinpointed the housing issue, and that’s an issue that’s unique to Guelph. We have also a higher percentage of those that are food insecure, compared to the rest of the province. But our other numbers are pretty close to the rest of the province.

CAN: Just under a month ago, we concluded a marathon election campaign. To me, at least, there didn’t seem to be much of a focus on poverty per se; there was a vague, nebulous idea of the economy instead. How does language like this impact poverty alleviation?

RAN: You’re right in that the campaign focused mostly on the economy and jobs, and while that’s certainly part of it, we would have liked to see more direct conversation around specific issues like social housing. At the local level, I think we did better; some of the work that the Task Force did included distributing fact sheets, and meeting candidates and supporting all-candidate debates, which I think generated more discussion locally. And I think it’s up to local groups to keep these issues on the table.

CAN: Would you say the population of the GW area is well-educated on the issue of poverty, and what misconceptions persist surrounding poverty?

STU: Well that is a big part of what we do, and it’s why we are here, to raise awareness and to give voice to people who are on low incomes. If poverty doesn’t touch you directly, it’s a pretty easy issue to ignore. And for many people who don’t deal with poverty in our own lives, we underestimate the supports in our lives, and overestimate our responsibility for our successes and achievements. When people live on poverty on a daily basis, it can be very grueling; it takes a toll on their physical and mental health. I think it’s easy for people to say that ‘all they need to do is get their act together’ or ‘there must be a lack of motivation or element of laziness’, which I think is the biggest misconception out there. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to seek those supports, and how stigmatizing it is to be constantly having to ask for help, and how hard it can be when you have barriers in your way.

RAN: To build on that, I think we do have a generous and caring community, but one of the challenges we take on is shifting people away from simple charitable responses. For there to be more sustainable, long term change, it has to happen at the more system or policy level, and I think its hard to shift people to thinking about how they can impact change on a policy level.

CAN: You’ve mentioned food banks and food security earlier, and Food Banks Canada just released its annual Hunger Count report, which showed a slight increase in the number of Canadians accessing food banks. Katherine Schmidt, the group’s executive director, went on record saying that she hopes that governments consider phasing out food banks and putting the money into measures like a guaranteed annual income. Do you have any thoughts on that?

RAN: Yeah, I think it’s really great to see food banks rallying behind that. The interesting thing about food bank data is that it doesn’t really represent food insecurity. When we talk about 16.4% of people in this area being food insecure in this area, maybe only a third of them access food banks. Now that may be for many reasons- hours of operation, or the stigma- and reports like these are great to encourage conversation, but we need to put them in context as well.

STU: I think when it comes to food insecurity, it goes back to people’s incomes. People would prefer to make their own food choices the way we do, and it’s great that Food Banks Canada is supporting an income guarantee that will allow people to do that, and ultimately phase out the need for charitable responses.

CAN: As a general rule, when policy makers are trying to come up with good anti-poverty policy, what constitutes good policy, and what’s the track record of recent provincial, municipal or regional governments on that front?

RAN: Ultimately, good policy puts more money in people’s pockets, and so we support such things as a guaranteed annual income, or an increase in social assistance. In terms of government efforts: the Task Force is funded by our city and county, so we have an ongoing commitment form the municipality. The city recently worked with us to develop the affordable bus pass plan. At a county level, we have a 10 year housing and homelessness plan, and a 5 year strategy to end homelessness. The province has a poverty reduction strategy, which had some traction in its first five years, and we’re a year into its renewal process. We’ve seen less action at the federal level, but PM Justin Trudeau just put out his ministerial letters, asking for a commitment to a national poverty reduction strategy.

STU: If you look back on a longer time frame, we as a country have done best on poverty reduction when we’ve just given low income people more money. So, for example, when the government announced the guaranteed income supplement for seniors, there was a real reduction in seniors poverty. And we saw a reduction in child poverty with the national child benefit. So when you put policies like this together, and there can be coordination between different levels of government, that’s when you really see significant reductions in poverty levels.

CAN: What have the Task Force got planned for the future?

RAN: While we don’t directly provide services or programs for low-income individuals, we support local action and system and policy change. We’ve been providing input and monitoring the different municipal housing strategies. This summer, we were involved in a project in the Mt. Forest area, the Market Bucks program. This provided vouchers to Ontario Works recipients to purchase food in the farmers markets, and the vouchers were also available to the public to purchase as well, so the vendor wouldn’t know where a voucher came from, which was an attempt to reduce the stigma of these. On income inequality, we launched a Living Wage Employer Recognition program, and will be looking to expand that in the coming weeks.

CAN: Do you have anything else you’d like to highlight, before we wrap up?

RAN: Please reach out to us at gwpoverty.ca, and sign up for our newsletter. We send it out every couple of weeks and it has the research we’ve been doing.

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