A better tool box for poverty reduction

TheStar.com – Opinion – A better tool box for poverty reduction
May 25, 2009.   Carol Goar

One of the defining characteristics of an effective social agency is that it never stays still. It changes as the population of a community changes. It creates new programs when the existing ones don’t meet the needs of its clients. It constantly looks for better ways to do things and better tools to help people.

Governments, on the other hand, lock their programs in place with rigid rules. They demand conformity. They manage change by imposing limits and off-loading responsibilities.

This clash of visions leads to stifled creativity and half-solved problems.

That is the message a Senate delegation heard when it came to Toronto this month, seeking solutions to urban poverty. Three members of the subcommittee on cities – Senators Art Eggleton, Jane Cordy and Hugh Segal – spent a morning at Woodgreen Community Services, one of Toronto’s leading social agencies.

Predictably, the senators heard calls for a national child-care program and a national housing program. Those have become a staple of their consultations. Less predictably, they learned how governments block the very progress they claim to want.

Brian Smith, president of Woodgreen, told the senators how frustrating it can be to pull together the services that people need to break the poverty cycle. Different ministries have different – often conflicting – regulations. Different levels of government have different objectives. Each bureaucracy works in isolation. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do what’s best for people seeking help.

Five women from Woodgreen’s “Homeward Bound” program told the senators how liberating it can be to get the right kind of assistance, rather than patching together government services that keep them alive, but trapped.

Homeward Bound, launched five years ago, is a program that moves single mothers and their children out of the shelter system. Participants are offered affordable housing, subsidized child care, two years of college training and a guaranteed job at the end. They choose their field of study. Woodgreen provides the support and stability they need to become self-sufficient. It has lifted 50 families out of poverty.

The reason it works so well, Smith said, is that Woodgreen treats poverty as a complex problem, not a personal failure or chronic condition.

But creating a program like Homeward Bound, even with willing corporate partners, involves endless head-butting with bureaucrats, steering around legislative obstacles and plugging gaps in government services, he said. “We really need some leadership at the federal level.”

Smith highlighted two other initiatives which, like Homeward Bound, defy the one-size-fits-all government model.

Rites of Passage is a program that equips teens of African descent to handle the challenges of living in one of Toronto’s “priority” neighbourhoods (Scarborough’s Victory Village). Working with local schools, Toronto Community Housing and African Canadian leaders, Woodgreen shows participants how to use their heritage as a source of strength. They learn to set goals, achieve them and give something back to their community; be it a farmer’s market or a preteen basketball program.

The Bruce/Woodgreen Early Learning Centre erases the boundary between child care and education. Children begin learning together at 2 1/2 years of age and move into kindergarten under the same roof (in this case, Bruce Junior Public School). They get a strong start and their parents don’t have to shuttle them between school, daycare and babysitters.

More money would help in the battle against poverty, Smith said. But policy-makers could accelerate the pace just by untangling their regulations, ending their turf wars and encouraging innovation.

Senators can’t mandate any of that. But they can put pressure on public officials. And they can provide the country with a well-researched blueprint for resilient cities.

 

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