Poverty carries a significant price tag

PAHerald.sk.ca – News/Local – Spending more money on anti-poverty efforts is one of those instances “where the nice thing to do is also the smart thing to do,” Ryan Meili concluded.
February 03, 2014.   Tyler Clarke

This, the family doctor and Upstream Institute for a Healthy Society director said, is the key conclusion he’s drawn from the institute’s estimation that poverty costs the Saskatchewan economy $3.8 billion per year.

Of this cost, about two-thirds is made up of lost opportunity such as decreased economic productivity and tax income, and the balance consists of poverty-fueled use of social services, the judicial system and health services.

In short, these are “additional costs because we’re not being successful in dealing with poverty,” he explained.

“What we’re really hoping for — and this is the reason for crunching the numbers and starting a program called ‘Poverty Costs’ — is that people take into account both the human costs with people having to deal with the suffering that comes with poverty … but also the economic costs.

“Poverty is not an inevitable side to a growing economy, it’s actually an impediment.”

A labyrinth of issues and complexities accompanies poverty, Meili said, noting that the $3.8 billion figure represents what happens after the problem has had time to fester.

“We don’t see this as a partisan issue (and) we don’t see this as pointing the blame at the government,” he said. “This number is new information, and it’s a really great reason to act.”

The Poverty Costs campaign wasn’t supposed to launch in March, Meili said, noting that they’re still in their earliest stages of mapping out an approach. Meili shared the $3.8 billion figure during a speech on Friday — a surprising number that garnered immediate media attention.

The early response has been overwhelming, he said, noting that people are starting to see the benefits of prevention over cleaning up messes after the fact.

The $3.8 billion figure makes a strong case for governments to fund anti-poverty initiatives, he said.

In Prince Albert, the portion of people living on a low-income is about 19.1 per cent, Statistics Canada reported in 2010 — a figure slightly above the provincial rate of 14 per cent.

Reasons for poverty vary, Riverbank Development Corporation manager Brian Howell said, noting that a key challenge in Prince Albert is the high cost of housing — a challenge that can affect nearly every facet of one’s life.

“If you’re in the private sector and rents are high and you have a limited income, you can often get into trouble and that can mean having to quit school or quit your job if you don’t have a place to live,” he said.

“You often see people paying 50 to 60 per cent of their income on rent … so you don’t have enough money to spend on food, so your diet’s not as good and you run into health issues, which cost the medical health system lots of money in terms of diabetes and just diseases and issues related to improper diet.”

Another challenge comes with job availability and residents’ readiness to work, Ready to Work Inclusion Program employment outreach specialist Dave Hobden said.

The Ready to Work Inclusion Program helps link people who have disabilities with employers, as well as prepare them for introduction or reintroduction into the working world.

What we’re really hoping for — and this is the reason for crunching the numbers and starting a program called ‘Poverty Costs’ — is that people take into account both the human costs with people having to deal with the suffering that comes with poverty … but also the economic costs. Poverty is not an inevitable side to a growing economy, it’s actually an impediment.”Ryan Meili

“Employment gives you that sense of well-being, you feel good about yourself and you have less free time on your hand to get into the negative vices and things like that, and it’s good for your self esteem,” Hobden said.

Even for those who get lower-level jobs, it’s a decent start in breaking one’s cycle of poverty, he added.

“When you walk in and you see how happy they are to have a job – it’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s not a handout — they’re earning the money and contributing something back to the employer.”

With the $3.8 billion figure out there, Meili said that he hopes to see the provincial government come up with a poverty reduction plan.

“Right now it’s only Saskatchewan and British Columbia that don’t have poverty reduction plans,” he said.

Plans vary drastically from province to province, but could include things like minimum wage guarantees, affordable childcare, affordable housing programs, as well as specific goals with timelines.

All levels of government should be involved, he said, noting that it’s impossible to have an effective poverty reduction plan without the municipal and federal levels of government working in consort with the provincial government.

Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society is expected to launch their Poverty Costs initiative next month, at which time public and government consultations are expected to begin.

A timeline has not been set up yet, but Meili said that he hopes to see the effort include a stop in Prince Albert.

“I think you always will have people who need help from the rest of us, for one reason or another, whether it’s mental health, disabilities … some people just can’t participate in the regular economy and make money to survive,” Howell said.

Others people are pushed into poverty, but have the capacity to do better, he added.

“I think we have a responsibility to both groups. To the one, to provide them with an adequate standard of living if they’re not able to make it by themselves, and to the other, to help them have the opportunities to become (whatever they want to become) until their income is adequate to support them (and) they’re part of the economy and part of society.”

Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society is an organization aimed at creating a healthy society through evidence-based people-centred ideas and is being headed by Meili, a Saskatoon-based family doctor and an unsuccessful Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate last year.

The Riverbank Development Corporation is a registered non-profit whose mission, Howell explained, is “to strengthen our community through economic development, with a focus on the areas of nutrition, housing and employment, mostly.”

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