An embarrassing stance on poverty; No results: Promises of two-year pilot program are largely unfulfilled

Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and a member of the BC Poverty Reduction Coalition; Vancouver Sun 

The province and Union of BC Municipalities’ pilot project to address poverty in seven communities has produced no tangible results, says poverty activist Adrienne Montani.

British Columbians of many stripes have been calling on the provincial government for many years to develop a more strategic approach to the problem of our consistently high child and family poverty rates, which have been higher than the national average since 1999.

Two years ago, the province announced “community poverty reduction strategies” as pilot projects in seven B.C. communities. These projects were to be led by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD) in partnership with the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM), and were deliberately focused at the level of engaging 10 to 15 families in each community with the help of a halftime consultant. There was a promise to learn from these pilots and scale up the initiative to many more communities in short order.

The government’s rationale for this micro approach was its repeated assertion that “there is no one-size-fits-all approach to poverty.”

This assertion can be understood as an attempt to deflect attention from the need for reform of key public policies that do operate as “one-size-fits-all” and function to trap families in poverty. Two examples of such public policies are welfare rates that are below subsistence level and a refusal to create a universally accessible child care system that is affordable for low-income parents who would like to work their way out of poverty. On May 13, the MCFD and UBCM released the first progress report on these projects, accompanied by a news release stating that the project goals had been to identify key barriers families face, create community plans to address these barriers, and to connect families to services they need. Not surprisingly, there was no trouble identifying barriers to getting out of poverty, such as the lack of affordable child care and affordable, appropriate housing, financial barriers to post-secondary education and a lack of good-paying jobs, among others.

Yet the projects clearly struggled with meeting the services needs of the 72 families they worked with, especially solving their big issues — housing, child care, more income. Some good work was done assisting them with crisis situations, e.g. evictions, or finding free food, but there is no evidence that they are no longer living in poverty.

This micro-focused initiative supports two myths: that the real cause of poverty is poor families’ failure to find the services they need and that existing services are sufficient, if everyone just works better together at the community level. This ignores the evidence that poverty levels are influenced by larger economic trends and public policy decisions. Individual families and local communities do not have the power or resources to make the kinds of changes or investments that provincial and federal governments can make. Two years into this “pilot,” the commitment to expand to more communities is gone. The leadership advisory committee was never appointed. The promise that the pilots would inform and drive wider social and policy changes to meet the needs of the most vulnerable at the local and provincial levels is unfulfilled. Instead, the progress report offers a long list of government activities, past or promised expenditures and plans, including building bike lanes and expanding homeless shelters, as if they are solving the problem of poverty. This is embarrassing.

A particularly disturbing sentence in the progress report reads: “With more than one million jobs expected in the next decade, it’s important that our work to alleviate poverty does not reduce incentives for self-sufficiency.” Government seems to believe that people will not want to work if they aren’t suffering. This view is not supported by research and is insulting to those struggling to live on incomes insufficient to meet their basic needs.

Those expecting that a government “poverty pilot progress report” on two years of work would provide some measures of poverty reduction achieved, or targets to be achieved, will be disappointed. Instead we’ve been served a highly political report that attempts to justify the lack of strategic provincial action and measurable results and to download responsibility for poverty reduction to local communities.

The Liberal government has an opportunity to rise above partisanship, and support Bill M212, The Poverty Reduction and Economic Exclusion Act, 2014, introduced into the legislature by NDP MLA Michelle Mungall. The bill sets out a plan for a long-overdue cross-government, accountable strategy to reduce the depth and breadth of poverty in B.C. It deserves all of our support.