Sept. 20, 2014 – Guelph Mercury – guest editorial by Sarah Haanstra, co-chair of the Guelph and Wellington Task for Poverty Elimination
Excerpts from “MUNICIPALITIES CAN HELP FIGHT POVERTY”
Poverty may start with a lack of income, but it is much more than that. Poverty means not being able to find safe and affordable housing, or having to choose between paying the rent and buying food. Poverty means reduced or no access to extended health and dental care, transportation, recreational activities and healthy food. For families and individuals living in poverty, the lack of access to the things that promote well-being become a barrier to meaningful inclusion in our community. Over time, the barriers pile up, making it increasingly difficult to find a way out of poverty.
Addressing the root causes of poverty requires commitments from all levels of government, alongside support from community stakeholders, business leaders, service providers and the general public. Without losing sight of the systemic issues that perpetuate and keep people living in poverty, local governments can play a key leadership role in creating policies and supporting local services and initiatives that make a difference.
We need to start by putting poverty on the agendas of our municipal councils. In Guelph, for example, the city offers an affordable bus pass for residents who are living in a low income household, as well as fee assistance to support access to recreation. The County of Wellington supports Wellington Transportation Services, a volunteer-based transportation service. As the consolidated municipal service manager for our area, the county has made direct investments in building affordable housing and has led the development of the 10-year Housing and Homelessness Plan.
These are concrete examples of how local policy and resource decisions can have a positive impact on the lives of low-income people in our community. However, much more can be done.
To truly understand how decisions, policies and practices affect those who live in poverty, local governments should recruit people with lived experience of poverty to participate on committees and in consultations that inform municipal decision-making. Hidden barriers that prevent participation, such as transportation or child-care costs, must also be addressed.
Our municipal governments are important funders of many community initiatives and events that keep us healthy and connected to our community. Municipalities can remove or minimize barriers such as cost and transportation that may prevent people who live in poverty from participating in local events such as local community fairs, taking part in recreational activities or picking up a fresh produce box. Subsidies, vouchers, sliding scales and transportation assistance are all ways to broaden access to these programs.
Housing is an important priority for our communities. Our municipalities need to advocate for increased investments in affordable housing as well as making solid local planning decisions.
Advocating to provincial and federal governments goes beyond housing to include issues such as increasing social assistance rates and improving access to health and dental care.
It’s important to have a local strategy when it comes to addressing poverty.
If our local governments show leadership in caring about and addressing the needs of people living in poverty in our communities, shifts in public discourse and understanding will follow.