Supporting Municipal Strategies in Poverty Reduction
Supporting Municipal Strategies in Poverty Reduction
Local governments are in a difficult position when it comes to investing in poverty reduction. We know from the Poverty Costs report that up to 9.5 billion dollars a year is wasted on health care, the justice system and in lost economic opportunities. Eliminating poverty and thereby reducing these costs directly benefits the province but municipalities may not see the same kind of direct impact. Of course, municipalities are still responsible for their citizens, but we need to recognize the roles and responsibilities of municipalities as being different from the role of the province. Because of this structural conundrum where municipalities are responsible for the well being of their citizens, we need to ask our municipalities to become part of the solution in ways that make sense to them. Local governments can use the levers for change that they control: bylaws; tax structures; and zoning control.
Currently too many communities have bylaws in place that effectively criminalize poverty. One example is the punitive bylaws and fines for fare evasion on public transit. While fare evasion (people using public transit without paying the fare) is a concern for major municipalities, currently the punishment for such an infraction is especially hard on people living in poverty. Subsidies and bus tickets may be available but often only through onerous and time-consuming processes where the outcome is far from assured. It is no surprise then that some people living in poverty will choose to ride transit without paying a fare and take their chances. The consequence of being caught is a ticket for hundreds of dollars. Now, if they are unable to afford the $2.75 fare price they are highly unlikely to pay the fine associated with the ticket. Many of these individuals continue to use public transit, as it is the only way that they can afford to get to work or to look for employment. People caught evading fare payment a second time are arrested and charged.
This may sound reasonable to some but it is important to consider the consequences of this action on the lives of people living in poverty and more broadly in our communities. Take the example of a single mom, working to make ends meet at a minimum wage job. Being arrested for not paying a $2.75 fare twice can lead to losing her job, leads to not having money to support her family, which could lead to Child Welfare taking custody of her children. Avoiding the above scenario is in everyone’s best interest. Instead of expensive and time consuming fare evasion policies, people living in poverty and communities would be better served by finding mechanisms to support low income transit passes for all people living in low income.
Municipalities can encourage business development that contributes to the well being of our communities and reduces poverty. A small local business that feeds our local economy and creates quality jobs that pay fair wages are businesses that we should all be supportive of in our communities. Businesses seen to be an asset to the community should be given consideration around applications for zoning and in the calculation of business and property taxes. On the other hand, businesses that are unequivocally negative for our communities, such as payday lenders, pornographic entertainment shops and possibly liquor stores should be strictly regulated to ensure they cannot enter neighborhoods that have a high percentage of people living in poverty.
The province can support municipal efforts by creating mechanisms and incentives for municipalities to engage in poverty reduction.
Recommendation One: Create a provincial body with responsibility for allocating funds to move the provincial 5 year child poverty elimination and 10 year overall poverty reduction plans forward and for tracking the impact of the funding with measurement and evaluation criteria.
One valid criticism about long-term collaborative planning and large-scale community change efforts is that shared and explicit goal setting and outcome measurement is difficult. With this concern in mind a provincial body should be established that is responsible for the distribution of funds as well as developmental evaluative frameworks and outcome tracking. These important principles need to be ingrained into the funding model with very clear expectations. This provincial entity can take one of many forms; a secretariat, as is the case with homelessness in Alberta, or a crown corporation as is the case of poverty reduction in New Brunswick.
There are some hard truths to be faced here, truths that will challenge all of us that work in the social services sector. One is that the things we are currently doing are not working; it is not that they are unimportant, ill conceived or non-essential to poverty alleviation. The difference between this type of programmatic response and poverty reduction work is the level on which the activity takes place. We need to shift from primarily working “on individuals” to working “on systems” that contribute to individuals living in poverty. To say this plainly, some of the activity that we have been doing for many years, activity that we believed would decrease the number of people living in poverty needs to stop, and solutions that fit within the context of a collaborative comprehensive poverty reduction strategy need to be undertaken. A secretariat or crown corporation could ensure funding is given to initiatives that address “root causes” through comprehensive and collaborative approaches to poverty.
Recommendation Two: Designate provincial funding to develop municipal poverty reduction plans that fit within the objectives of the province’s poverty reduction strategy.
Individuals and families living in poverty would benefit from all orders of government working together to generate solutions to eliminate poverty. Comprehensive poverty reduction strategies and buy-in from all orders of government could be achieved if the phrase “poverty is everyone’s issue” resonated with elected officials in the same way as “there is only one tax payer” does.
The province has had success in engaging numerous municipalities in their creation of plans to address homelessness. Seed monies from the province could assist municipalities in the creation of local poverty reduction strategies.
Conditions for receiving provincial funding could include:
• a requirement that municipal councils formally “approve” their community’s poverty reduction plans;
• a requirement that plans be “cross-sectoral” – they involve representation and buy-in from all orders of government, non-profit and private sectors as well as people with experience living in poverty; and
• that they identify how sustained local commitment will be maintained.