This Poor Province

After a decade of boom, food banks are busier than ever and one in four kids lives in poverty. Now what?

Province | by Paul Dechene

Who could’ve seen this coming? Brad Wall and the Saskatchewan Party are at the province’s helm for a decade — much of it through a massive economic boom — and in all that time they somehow fail to meaningfully deal with poverty in Saskatchewan.

Sure, our unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent compares well nationally, but when you look at our child poverty numbers, they’re abysmal. A 2016 report from Canada Without Poverty says that as of 2014, Saskatchewan’s child poverty rate was the third worst in the country at 24.6 per cent; that’s well above the national rate of 18.5 per cent.

On reserves, the situation is even worse as child poverty rates hit 69 per cent.

Meanwhile, food bank use across the province has risen from 1.7 per cent in 2008 to 2.7 per cent in 2016.

In an Oct. 17 speech to commemorate the U.N. Day for the Eradication of Poverty at the Saskatchewan Legislature, Peter Gilmer of the Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry said the Saskatchewan Party government has only made life harder for the poorest in the province through a series of mean-spirited cuts to social services in the last two budgets.

“The 2017 provincial budget is, I believe, the worst budget in Saskatchewan history,” said Gilmer. “It’s a budget that took from those with the very least to give to those with the very most.

“And to be honest with you, from the antipoverty sector, the 2016 budget wasn’t much better,” he said.

Gilmer cited cuts to the Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability, the Saskatchewan Employment Supplement and to extra living allowances, all of which hit people in the lowest income brackets.

He did note though that social pressure was successful in getting the provincial government to reverse several of its most egregious cuts.

“There was the partial restoration of funding to funeral and viewing coverage for income assistance recipients,” said Gilmer. “But you have wonder what does a government think — like, to even think about implementing it, I can’t even believe that any government would look at cutting something that’s such a basic dignity and decency issue as ensuring that loved ones are remembered properly.

“They also backed off on the cuts for school supplies for children, but once again you have wonder what government is thinking to be considering that?”

The Grassroots Push For A Fix

In 2016 and 2017, anti-poverty groups from across the province converged into a movement called SaskForward. It was an attempt by civil society groups to provide a response to the Saskatchewan Party government plan to enact transformational change throughout the public service.

And Gilmer used his Oct. 17 platform to announce one of the responses that emerged from the SaskForward consultation process: a draft of an act to eliminate poverty in Saskatchewan.

“We need to be entrenching basic social and economic rights,” said Gilmer. “We’re not here to beg economic and social rights, we’re here to demand them and to see that there’s legislation in place to ensure them.

“Legislation would not only protect people, it would also create targets and goals for sustained action regardless of governments, regardless of bureaucrats,” he said.

“Poverty reduction, and ultimately elimination, has far-reaching social and economic benefits for all of us. As the poverty costs campaign showed, we’re spending $3.8 billion a year as a province on the costs of poverty. Investing in affordable housing, accessible childcare and adequate income would improve health, our quality of life for all. We’re all better off when we eliminate poverty.”

Meanwhile, up in Saskatoon, Cody Sharpe of Upstream and Living Wage Saskatoon says that anti-poverty campaigners are making great strides with that city’s government.

“We’re in the very, very early days of drafting a poverty elimination framework for the City of Saskatoon,” says Sharpe. “[The City] is actually a partner on that project, so it’s not going to be a matter of civil society developing something then advocating for it. It’s going to be the city jointly developing something with civil society which is pretty exciting.”

Sharpe says the framework would be about defining what practical activities the city can undertake to eliminate poverty, such as filling the need for affordable housing and improving food security through things like grocery stores in underserved neighbourhoods like downtown.

Going Forward

Though there were many speeches outside the legislature on Oct. 17 to honour the U.N. Day for the Eradication of Poverty, the rally was sparsely attended. Also, the predominant hair colour was grey.

It highlighted a problem for the province’s anti-poverty movement: where is the next generation of anti-poverty champions?

According to Sharpe, too few anti-poverty groups are reaching out to find those new leaders.

“It’s challenging building those relationships, because you’re spending time on training instead of advocacy work, which is what you were driven to do in the first place. But yeah, I think you have to be very active in going out and reaching out to young people early on.”

He balks at the idea that the problem is simply that millennials don’t give a shit about causes like eliminating poverty.

“Of course, millennials give a shit,” says Sharpe. “Who’s having trouble buying houses? Who’s having to get all this education for an extraordinarily entry level job? Millennials give a shit, they just don’t have a lot of time because this is the world we’ve built.

“That’s something we see in the literature, When people are under income stress, they don’t participate in their community, they don’t volunteer, they don’t go to rallies, they don’t volunteer with political parties.

“So yeah, that ‘millennials don’t give a shit’ argument? You don’t know the numbers, man.”


Sidebar

Poverty: Fix It, Or Wait For Revolution?

Cody Sharpe works for Upstream, a national non-profit organization that seeks policy action on the social factors that influence health such as income, food security, housing, race, gender and disabilities.

The Upstream website (thinkupstream.net) is a bright and optimistic-looking affair. Considering the state of poverty action in the province, does Sharpe share his website’s optimistic outlook?

“Upstream promotes a very positive, solutions oriented frame and approach,” says Sharpe. “Am I optimistic? I know that things can be done better. I’m not willing to throw up my hands yet.

“There’s people who’ve been doing this a lot longer than me. But I’m extremely dissatisfied — not just with this government but with successive governments; their tepid commitment to eliminating poverty in this province, especially when the numbers are so stark. Child poverty in this province among First Nations is above 60 per cent. By 2050, we’ll be half aboriginal in the province. And that number, that 60 per cent has barely moved for the last 10 years. And it’s not just the province, it’s the feds too. Nobody takes sustained action on bringing that number down. And imagine what that number is going to be like if it’s 2050 and half our population is aboriginal and that child poverty rate is still 60 per cent? That’s a great way to destabilize a state.

“My background is political science and public policy. When I see these numbers, I think there’s a revolution coming.” /Paul Dechene