Hot! Region invites senator’s perspective on poverty, low-wage work

TheRecord.com – news-story (Waterloo Region Record)
2013-06-26.   Linda Givetash, Record staff

Employment may not be the simple solution for poverty as it is often assumed to be.

A public discussion on poverty and precarious employment held at the Region of Waterloo Monday explored the factors contributing to the growing numbers of working poor.

The discussion was part of a series called Dialogue on Diversity, intended to raise awareness about barriers that various community groups face in accessing regional services.

“We want to hear what the community is saying are some of the barriers and what we can do to fix them,” said Lorie Fioze, manager of strategic planning and strategic initiatives for the region.

The focus on poverty — and particularly the impact of precarious employment such as contract and seasonal work — was intended to supplement the region’s poverty reduction strategy.

Over 10 per cent of Waterloo Region’s population lives in poverty, and a third of those living with low income are working, said Mike Murray, chief administrative officer for the region.

With such a large population living in poverty — enough to fill the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium seven times over, Murray said — understanding the issue and finding solutions has been among the region’s top priorities.

Senator Art Eggleton, speaking at the discussion, said that across the country, when inflation is removed from the equation, the middle class has not seen a pay-raise in three decades.

Inequality between the top and bottom income brackets has grown substantially. Eggleton said the top 100 chief executive officers in the country now make 169 times the average salary of Canadians.

Comparatively, “most minimum-wage recipients are living below the poverty line,” he said.

“A lot of Canadians don’t think of themselves as poor … but more and more are concerned about slipping into rough times, being a paycheque or two away from crisis,” he said.

Research conducted by McMaster University and the United Way in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas has found precarious employment (such as seasonal or contract low-pay work) has grown by 50 per cent in the last 20 years.

Stephanie Procyk, manager of research, public policy and evaluation at United Way Toronto, said only half of the surveyed population reported having permanent, full-time employment — numbers she believes are applicable to Waterloo Region.

In addition to poverty, the unstable employment situation causes higher levels of anxiety on individuals and their families, diminishes their community engagement and often causes adults to delay plans such as choosing to have children.

Solutions are complex, requiring ideas from communities that experience the problem first-hand, and support from all levels of government, unions, and private-sector employers.

“We need top down commitment including funds, including drive,” Eggleton said of the need for the federal government to address poverty. “But the answers for poverty need to come from the bottom up because I think communities know how to deal with this.”

Eggleton said government doesn’t necessarily need to increase funding for social services to reduce poverty, but instead change the ways services are provided along with reforming policies regarding services, taxes and employment insurance.

“Labour has to be more than a commodity operating at the whim of market forces. We need to talk about people, we need to help people,” he said.

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