A coordinated approach to combating poverty

A coordinated effort

After the poverty conference concluded I came to the same conclusion (but with more clarity) that what our community needs (and by community I mean the big C-Community, as in our city, region, province, and nation) is a coordinated approach at combating poverty. There were several major themes that stood out to me. Mainly that we must actively engage all stakeholders in the process while looking at how every “system’s” policies effects the other – from separate departments within each level of government, to different levels of government.   We must take an innovative approach.  And there needs to be far greater general/public awareness of poverty. It is too easy to turn the other cheek, but when 1 in 10 Canadians feel the impact, it is far too important that the face of poverty become ingrained in our minds!

How many people can here the words “smoking is bad for your health” without picturing those god-awful photos of blackened smokers’ lungs? If poverty is responsible for killing more humans than cancer, why is it not at the top of the agenda at all levels of government? Whay can’t we envision what poverty does to our souls?

People, until you have had the rug pulled out from under your feet and experienced the demoralizing “system” of welfare in our nation (among others), you cannot fully fathom the impact of poverty. I know I don’t get it entirely. I know that I have worked hard to stay above water, and out of the entrapment of our systems, but I also know that I have been just one crisis away at more than one time in my life. AND I am not alone. And there are people worse off than I have ever been.

It is time that we stopped and really looked at the face of poverty and said “It is NOT okay!” “I do NOT accept fellow citizens of my nation living this way!”. Stand up with me to form a united voice: Poverty MUST end!!!

We can no longer AFFORD poverty! (Conference Day 1)

Tonight I had the privilege of hearing some amazing people share their stories. I was so touched by their genuine humble attitude and willingness to share and hopefully open a few people’s eyes with their stories.

If only the room had been jam-packed with those whose eyes really need to be opened. The Stephen Harper’s who seem to believe it is okay to attempt to revive our economy on the backs of our poorest and most vulnerable.

As Senator Art Eggleton said today, if we cannot reach such people via morals, perhaps we can via economics. We can no longer AFFORD poverty. He said, that in order to achieve future prosperity, we must reduce today’s poverty. It costs us as a nation more to maintain people’s current state of poverty (which is what our current systems of social support are set up to achieve; side note: tragically when they are not working well, which is much of the time, they not only maintain, but entrap people in poverty) than it would if we invested in eliminating it. Which, by the way, our nation committed to doing by the year 2000, for children of our nation, in 1989.

Speaking at the event tonight and listening to the panel afterward were Ministers: More (Labour & Development) and Peterson-Rafuse (Community Services). I truly hope that they will remain in attendance at this conference to take in more of those shared experiences and really see the faces of poverty, like we saw tonight.

The people we heard from today shared 3 entirely different stories, yet their messages were the same.
Poverty must end.

Laura shared a story of when she was the struggling artist trying to make a go of it in life, and needing a hand up temporarily after losing a job. Then of the more mainstream therapist (herself, later in life) being sidelined by injuries that have left her unable to work a traditional job, or perhaps any job at all. She was forced to deplete every one of her assets before she could get help. Her RSP’s, her small savings, etc. So now, not only is she living in poverty, but she has no hope of getting out of it in the future.

As Laura pointed out tonight, poverty is not complex. (my sidebar: perhaps the “issue” of poverty may be). The state of poverty is not complex, it is very simple. People deserve to eat. People deserve to have safe potable water to drink. People deserve to have a safe place to call home. Another person said that all people in the world have a right to have enough to live. That they have the right to be allowed to live. Senator Art Eggleton shared a Statistics Canada finding that poverty reduces people’s life expectancy even more than Cancer.

Kimberly shared her story of being a young mom and victim of abuse choosing to become a survivor. She relied on social assistance to give her a hand up in her time of need, but has become entrenched in poverty. She went back to school to be able to provide a better life for her children and now has student loans equivalent to many people’s mortgage payments. She cannot afford a home for herself and her children.

Wayne shared a story of medical needs putting him in a position of indefinite dependance on the system, of the humility of being forced to “shop” for second hand furniture with an allowance from Community Services that requires other people to communicate about his needs, rather than allowing him to be empowered to care for himself.

The right to shelter and other survival needs should not come at the cost of someone’s dignity. Sometimes dignity is all a person has left. As Laura pointed out tonight we must start saying that “my value system does not include a person living like that”.

There was a little good news that came out of today’s events. Minister Peterson-Rafuse shared some important announcements with regards to changes to the service delivery design of Employment Support Income Assistance (ESIA): (*these are not verbatim and must be confirmed for accuracy) eye exams will be fully covered; benefits will still continue after a child turns “of age” if they are still a student living at home; the spouse-in-the-house rule has been changed so that an ESIA recipient’s benefits are not effected for one year after moving in with their partner (what happens after a year though Denise? We don’t really believe two poor people living together can lift themselves out of poverty simply by living together do we?); the total amount of assets an individual can have (rather than forced to deplete) will be doubled; supports will be based on individual needs; and the application process will be much less intrusive, asking only for Basic personal Information.

These are positive signs. As usual, they just aren’t enough. But these are important baby steps. I commend the Province of Nova Scotia for making steps towards a better quality of life for all of our citizens!

Are you/we a “Have” or a “Have-not”?

It’s a common theme at this time of the year, but it holds true in most parts of the world. Autumn is a time for change. The physical changes happening all around us seem to be an impetus for internal change processes. We send our children back to school, we ramp up the extra-curricular activities and move into a faster pace than the relaxed summer days (personally those weren’t around long enough for my liking).

I always feel compelled to reflect on my life and consider what changes need to happen in order for me to move forward and feel content with the direction of my life. I’ve been considering a lot what I want out of my life and how to achieve it. I feel compelled to make a difference in this world, which I know most of us do if we take the time to really consider what legacy we’d like to leave behind us at the end of our time on this earth. For me, it’s simply been a part of the way I think , for as long as I can recall.  I want the people and community around me to change with me, for the better.

I live in a “have” community in a “have not” region of a wealthy developed nation. What this region lacks is globally insignificant – in comparison to the “have not” regions of the world. Globally we are very well-off. What many of our impoverished must do without is still a far better scenario than those of other nations. Some would accept that as proof that we don’t need to change. I disagree. If we look around us there are people among us living without. Without everyday necessities. They live without things that many of us would never accept doing without in our own lives. Yet, we judge those same people for mis-spending, while we would never invite someone else’s judgment of our spending habits. Somehow most of us feel entitled to our privacy and right to determine our own priorities without external interference, yet think nothing of judging our neighbors who struggle to get by for their “poor choices”.

This is endemic in our society and way of being. We do so at the very micro level – passing judgment on our neighbors – and we do so at varying macro levels.

In my “have” community it is not uncommon to hear residents complain about being forced to contribute to the larger system, only to see other communities benefit from those funds for things that our own community believes not to be necessary (and we usually already have). Or a poor choice of priorities. Or (imagine!) to be taking away funds from our own community’s own priorities.

Now don’t get me wrong, I want to see my community develop and grow and thrive. I hate for us to do without in order for other priorities to be met. However, I believe very much that it is our responsibility as citizens of a larger community to consider what sacrifices might need to be made in order to lift others up. We must consider that if we make those sacrifices, and others are lifted up, the result will benefit us all. It’s always circular.

Just as we sometimes need to sacrifice something of our own (time/money, etc.) to help a family member or neighbor in need, so too must neighboring communities, regions, provinces, and yes, even nations. I absolutely support our nation helping those less fortunate nations, especially in extreme times of need (i.e. during floods, and earthquakes and wars). I also support each and every one of us remembering that it starts at home. If we take the time to care for our neighbors, we will as a nation have greater capacity to help other nations.

I’m not in a position to have much of an impact on the state of the world, or even how my own nation fits into that picture, but I can start right here at home. My vision is that my immediate community will begin to make it a priority to share our wealth, to lift up those around us, so that we all can become “have communities”, so that we can become a “have province” and one day be able to say that there are NO “have-not regions” in our own nation. When we can finally say that, we will be in a position to offer so much more to other parts of this world.

We CAN change the world, one person, one neighborhood, one community at a time.  Be the Change!

rich white guys in boardrooms who think they can end poverty?

(Article aptly titled, and inspired by a good friend and fellow caring citizen).

Have you ever sat in a board room and observed a bunch of wealthy, Caucasian, Anglosaxon men (and a handful of women, and non-white, and non-Anglo wealthy people) talking Poverty?

It wasn’t long ago I had the incredible learning experience of a not-so-off-the-mark event such as this.

It was an opening session meeting of the Parliamentary committee of HUMA. Parliament had just reconvened which meant every committee had to hit reset, and set a “new” agenda for the session. This meeting included a short discussion of what Bills were not scrapped when Parliament was prorogued (all Private Members Bills survive), and other projects that were on the committee’s portfolio.

I sat in as a staff observer while completing my social work field placement shadowing Megan Leslie, MP for Halifax, NS. It was an experience, to put it mildly. I had the great fortune of being prepped with some of the preliminary work put into the theatrics of attempting to have a Bill passed. I was also able to follow some of the work to be done in preparing for the committee actually addressing the Bill on the agenda in forthcoming weekly meetings. This wasn’t just any Bill. This was the Bill C304: An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians (A National Housing Strategy). From a social worker’s perspective, this was exciting stuff. From a New Democrat Member of Parliament’s perspective (who sat as the Housing & Homelessness critic for her party), this was exciting stuff.

Now I must say this was not a dramatic sort of meeting. The theatrics were all in the background. Who is on side? Who do we need to get on side? Who is never going to be on side no matter how hard we aim to persuade them? What must be done to address some of the outstanding issues that might prevent this ever passing 2nd (then 3rd) reading in the House? It is a lot of jumping through hoops, and I learned in what ways citizens’ voices can have some effect on legislation.

Another item on the agenda that was discussed (in somewhat greater length) at this preliminary meeting was that of a report being prepared by the committee, on Poverty. It’s a project that’s been ongoing for considerable time (2-3 years?), and is near completion, but for a few important areas that need further fleshing out. It all SOUNDS quite fantastic. But when I tried to wrap my head around it, I could only imagine the expense of sending this team of Parliamentarians on a field trip to get a better grasp of the depths of poverty in our aboriginal communities. That money could be so much better spent. And to what end? First, it would seem to me that the order of events was all wrong. Shouldn’t the field trip frame the research? And what exactly will be accomplished once this magnificent multi-hundred page document is released?

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for peer education. I’m all for public and political awareness raising. I believe that coming from fellow elected officials and being submitted by an (albeit multi-partisan) committee of this Conservative government there is some healthy ammo for us activist types to use when arguing for the need for our government, our nation, to step up and DO something about our own country’s despicable situation. However, will the government themselves take any initiative to DO something? Is there any chance that we will finally make even minute progress on that commitment to end child poverty (by the year 2000) in Canada that our nation made more than 20 years ago? I have my doubts.

I want to see our governments, at all levels, put their money where their mouth is and walk the talk.

Sitting in this room, listening to all of these wealthy and powerful white men discuss the need to get their hands dirty, left me feeling just a little disgraced. The children of our nation don’t need more reports to prove their needs are worthy. They need action, and swiftly.

*If you want to have a voice, contact your Member of Parliament and express your support for Bill C304: An Act to ensure secure, adequate, accessible and affordable housing for Canadians, as well as Bill C-545: An Act to Eliminate Poverty in Canada, presented in June and at 1st reading this session.

Rape, child pornography, death, poverty and ignorance. A slow news day?

I’m not sure what news had the greater effect on me in the last 24 hrs. The Maple Ridge gang rape of a 16 year old girl that was photographed and posted to Facebook (this is child porn by the way), the cyclist killed on the highway in New Brunswick, or this story of the US Senate Minority leader who wouldn’t know suffering if it were to knock him across the head with a 2 by 4.

The gang rape is disturbing on so many levels. A young girl drugged and raped by a group of malicious asses, another malicious ass photographing the scene and posting it all over facebook so that this young girl can be re-victimized every time the photo is viewed, shared, and downloaded, and the fact that kids were chuckling at the situation on the news. People don’t understand that once you put something out on the interweb, there’s no return. You can delete it from its original source, but you can’t take it out of every inbox, hard drive it’s been downloaded to, or new source its been posted.

But what has our world come to when classmates are giggling on national television, claiming that it wasn’t really rape?! How do we get our children’s innocence back? How do we ever go back to a day when any sort of violence, especially sexual was a shameful thing for any child to witness, let alone be party to? Will we ever be able to teach the youth of society what a healthy sexual act or relationship is again?! I despair.

I have two children who will soon come of age. As much as I aim to protect, inform and educate my children, I cannot change how their so-called friends interact with them outside of my home (even within it, I’m afraid). There is a desperate need for a major shift in thinking and fast!

The cyclist / truck accident is sad. I wish I could say it were surprising, but so far this season there has been at least one major fatality / month that was most likely attributed to a driver not respecting the cyclists space and rights to be on the road. The greatest trajedy is that these tragic events result in a slew of hate-messages from anti-cyclist citizens who can’t take a moment to consider the full picture.

And finally I must address the statement made by the US Senate Minority leader that people of incomes higher than $250 000 (that’s two hundred and fifty thousand dollars!!!! annually!!!) were hardest hit by the recession.

Angela Glover Blackwell wrote a poignant article about the true depths of poverty as a result of the recession in the United States of America. It is shocking really. I don’t care how much money in relation to their pre-recession income an individual has lost, if they have not gone from having the ability to feed their family, to a state of survival in which everyday is a worry as to how their children will be fed, a roof kept over their heads, medical bills paid… then they haven’t a leg to stand on with this claim of hardship.

How does a man in the position Mitch McConnell is in have the nerve to make such a statement? Even if (and I’m really stretching to give the man the benefit of the doubt here) he actually understands the depths of poverty and how the real buying power of each dollar for someone in poverty is so significantly less than the same dollar in a high earners’ hand.. even if. How could he be so stupid as to say such a thing?

It is news days like this that I feel compelled to find a way that I personally can have some significant effect and see change as a result of my efforts. I am still at a loss for what my strategy should be.

We must start to give a damn!

Considering sending this to our local paper(s) as a Letter to the Editor type piece.  I would value feedback to help me polish it up:

We must stop paying lip-service to caring and giving, like we all do. Sure we believe we live in a fantastic city, province, country and society where we all care about one another. But is this really true? Do you care about your neighbors? …regardless of whether they live the same lifestyle as you?

I’m not just talking the neighbors next-door to your stable home, but the neighbors you see when you walk/bike/drive down the street, the neighbors who work near you, the neighbors you see on a daily basis and look right through.

Do you care about the people who aren’t related to you? Do you care about those who practice different cultural traditions? Do you care about the people whose skin color is different? Whose native tongue is not the same? Do you care about the neighbors of varying abilities? Do you care about those who are unemployed? How about those struggling to get by on social assistance? Do you care about the homeless?

I want you to really think about this for a minute. We all say we care. We say we live in a society where no one should have to go without the basic necessities of life. Not all of us agree that society should look after one another. But we all seem to agree that we wouldn’t want our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, grandparents, or even friends to go without.

Yet, still 1 in 10 children in Canada have lives that feel the direct impact of poverty.

There are a lot of groups out there lobbying government to provide better support to help eliminate poverty, to help children break the cycle and get a start in life. However, I maintain that until citizens as a whole understand and view poverty and those effected by it with compassion, until we all take a stand and say “ENOUGH!” governments will not do enough. I know it’s often difficult to believe, but our government can do very little if it is not the will of the people.

Why must we make it our will to eliminate poverty?

I recently read a memoir of a child of poverty, named Tiny. Her book “Criminal of Poverty” gives a very clear picture of how it is next to impossible to climb out of the depths of poverty when growing up homeless in America. The deeper the depths, the harder it is.

Not having lived it, I can only imagine. When I think back on times when I was struggling to make ends meet, and how stressful it was to not be able to pay the bills, I recall just how much of my energy was drained of me. To be without food, housing, healthcare, etc. could only leave me entirely without energy or time to do anything. Being consumed with thoughts of where the next meal is coming from, how I am going to keep a roof over my family’s head one more month, week, night… Then to further escalate that with additional requirements for those I care for, I can only fathom the despair I might feel.

It is a documented fact that poverty breeds health issues, in a BIG, BIG way. It is the number one determinant of health. We MUST find a way to end the cycle and make a better life for our next generations.

Just consider if that person you walk so quickly past while turning your other cheek were your daughter or son, mother or father… and that the stranger walking by not giving a damn were someone other than you. Would you not hope, that someone for just an instance would see your loved one as a human being with needs that they are simple unable to meet, for whatever reason that may have befallen them? Would you not be grateful to that stranger for offering your loved one a hand up? Even so much as a hot drink, a kind word, or perhaps something much much more substantial?

Next time you walk on by, remember the person you see right through, has loved ones who only want the best for them too.

A concerned citizen,

Trish McCourt, BSW, SWC

Social workers would like to see more in the budget to support Nova Scotians in need


To the editor,

While the 2010-2011 Nova Scotia provincial budget includes some positive changes, the Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers is concerned that, during tough economic times, we are not doing more for those in the greatest need. There is little in the budget for the priority groups identified in Nova Scotia’s Poverty Reduction Strategy: “persons with work-limiting disabilities; single, unattached individuals, including youth; lone-parent families, especially female lone parents; older individuals; Aboriginal peoples; African Nova Scotians; recent immigrants; and people with poor educational attainment, particular those who have not achieved high school education.” What is there just simply is not enough.

Changes like cuts to any level of government or providing tax breaks to high income earners do little for strengthening programs and services; or creating sustainable and secure supports for Nova Scotians – as identified as guiding principles in the Poverty Reduction Strategy.

A balanced budget in three years’ time sounds positive to a lot of people fiscally. It might, however, be considered that, during recovery of an economic recession, a deficit may be justifiable. Supporting those citizens in greatest need now can do more for our economy and fiscal management in the long run than that of a balanced budget in 2013.

Trish McCourt


Nova Scotia Association of Social Workers