Last month I attended a press conference at Edmonton City Hall called to announce the release of an important report titled Poverty Costs: An Economic Case for a Preventative Poverty Reduction Strategy in Alberta (www.actiontoendpovertyinalbertaq.org).
This report was the result of a couple years of work by Action to End Poverty in Alberta, a coalition of representatives from city governments, Family Community Support Services Associations (FCSS), social agencies, and advocacy organizations from across the province.
The purpose of the report is to shift the focus of the public conversation around poverty in Alberta from seeking to alleviate its worst effects to building a sustained strategy of poverty reduction and prevention.
This is not a utopian dream out of touch with reality. At this time, Alberta is one of only three provinces that lack a sustained provincial poverty reduction strategy. This preventive poverty reduction approach is similar and complementary to that already undertaken by Alberta municipal and provincial governments with their successful Ten Year Plans to End Homelessness.
Poverty is a serious issue in Alberta. Nearly 400,000 Albertans live in poverty. Of this number, 73,000 are children with 34,000 under the age of six.
Many in social ministry in the Alberta churches meet these men, women and children living in poverty face-to-face through church food banks, St. Vincent de Paul outreach, visits to inner city missions and agencies, and school lunch and snack programs.
The link between poverty and reduced health and education outcomes is well known. However, recent research shows that major social problems are not just associated with poverty measures compared between different societies but rather with the degree of economic inequality within specific societies.
This is especially significant in Alberta, a rich province with relatively low overall poverty percentages, but with the highest income inequality of any province in Canada.
Societies with high levels of income inequality present serious social challenges: increased physical and mental health problems, drug abuse, obesity, imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, and reduced educational performance.
Significantly, some of the negative social effects appear at all income levels in societies with high inequality.
However, the Poverty Costs report goes further and makes an economic case for a provincial strategy to reduce present levels of poverty and inequality in Alberta.
The present approach of focusing on the alleviation of the worst effects of poverty and increasing inequality in Alberta is expensive, both for government and the wider society.
This approach is hurting all of us in measurable and significant ways. The Poverty Costs report calculates the total external cost of poverty and inequality in Alberta to be between $7.1 and $9.5 billion. A well-planned comprehensive provincial poverty reduction plan that focuses on poverty prevention could actually pay for itself.
Provinces that have taken this path toward poverty reduction, such as Ontario and Newfoundland and Labrador, are making measurable, year to year progress in reducing specific poverty populations.
Some initial conversations have taken place with the new Alberta premier and some of her cabinet ministers, as well as with leaders of the opposition parties. A concerted grassroots effort will be needed to make sure that a provincial poverty reduction strategy for Alberta becomes part of the debates in the upcoming provincial election
A similar campaign, Dignity for All (www.dignityforall.ca), is advocating for poverty reduction at the federal level. Citizens for Public Justice, led by WCR columnist Joe Gunn, is co-sponsor of this national campaign.
Dignity for All organized a national event to propose a national poverty reduction strategy on Parliament Hill on Feb. 14 that brought representatives together from all the federal political parties in the House of Commons and the Senate. Significantly, the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops and several Catholic religious orders have signed on as public supporters of the national Dignity for All Campaign.
Often at Church social justice workshops, we speak of the two feet of Christian social outreach: meeting short-term social needs and organizing for long-term societal change. Many Church committees are doing a good job working to address short-term needs of those who are experiencing poverty.
Signing on in support of Dignity for All and Action to End Poverty in Alberta provides a practical way of moving to the other foot of long-term social change.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)