Time to take a hard look at poverty

Dawn Black, NDP MLA for New Westminster; The Record (New Westminster)

A new year is a time for new beginnings. …

In this shiny new year, I’d like to propose that our provincial government take a long, hard look at one area that needs attention and needs it badly. I’m talking about poverty and the fact that British Columbia has no poverty reduction plan. Seven other provinces and territories have enacted or plan to enact poverty reduction strategies. Only B.C. seems to have its head stuck in the sand on this issue.

Despite our great wealth as a province, B.C. has a poverty rate of more than 12 per cent.

In people numbers, that is more than 500,000 men, women and children. In a typical month here, more than 90,000 people visit a food bank. A third of food bank users are children. Yes, one-third. This is not surprising when you consider that B.C.’s child poverty rate has been the highest in Canada year after year.

My colleague Shane Simpson, the MLA for Vancouver-Hastings, has introduced a Poverty Reduction Act, challenging the government to legislate change.

“Minister after minister has refused to take action on poverty,” he said. Like Mr. Simpson, I don’t understand why.

If the government is uncertain about where to begin, I’m happy to help.

The minimum wage should be raised again, and this time tied to inflation. If you think this isn’t important, consider that almost half of B.C.’s poor children live in families where one parent has a full-time, full-year job.

I believe that decent, affordable, safe housing is a basic human right. But in New Westminster, it is already tough and becoming tougher for families to find affordable, safe housing. ….

I’d like to see a poverty reduction strategy address the issue of child care.

And what about how poverty affects schoolchildren? We all know that hungry children struggle to learn. Where is the strategy to provide all this province’s children with the nutritious food they need to have healthy bodies and minds? I find it interesting that Finland has had a national, free school lunch program since 1948 and Sweden since 1973. In France, children are served a five-course meal at lunchtime and taught manners. In Japan, 99 per cent of elementary students and 82 per cent of junior high students eat the school lunch. In Brazil, more than a million schoolchildren are fed a nutritious lunch every day.

Families struggling to pay the rent, pay the hydro bill and buy food don’t have money left over for the “extras” that enrich children’s lives, everything from storybooks to community sports to art, dance and music lessons.

And on the topic of education, the poverty reduction strategy must look at affordable skills training. ….

Poverty reduction also has to look at health. We know that poor people are less healthy. That has been proven over and over, in all parts of the world. ..

Poverty has a huge impact on our health-care system and the costs to which we all must contribute.

There are many ways to measure poverty, and the growing inequality in our society is certainly one of them. Opposition leader Adrian Dix points out that a recent report by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development shows there is an ever-widening gap. “This income disparity is particularly pronounced in our province,” he said.

A Conference Board of Canada report about rising inequality says that in B.C., the top one per cent of income earners received 12 per cent of total income in 2007. Only in Alberta did the top one per cent get a bigger piece of the pie.

I’d like to see a provincial poverty reduction plan with specific targets and timelines. Without such a plan, we’ll be ending 2012 the same way we began it, with far too many of our friends and neighbours mired in a day-to-day struggle to survive….