It’s a much-talked-about fact that B.C.’s poverty rates have been among the highest in Canada for over a decade. But inequality in this province is making headlines again as B.C. has become the only Canadian province without a poverty reduction plan.
With no poverty reduction plan, B.C.'s the odd one out
This fall Saskatchewan, whose poverty rate has rivaled B.C.’s over the years, became the ninth of 10 provinces to declare its government was at work on a poverty reduction plan.
The action spurred Michelle Mungall, social development critic for the B.C. New Democratic Party and MLA for Nelson- Creston, to table a private members bill calling on the provincial government to create a poverty reduction plan. This marks the second time Mungall has introduced the bill (the first time was earlier this spring) and the third time the NDP has put forward a poverty reduction bill since 2011. But none of the bills have come up for debate in the legislature.
“We need to get on with things. We need to be a part of what the entire country is doing and have our own poverty reduction strategy,” Mungall told Megaphone.
She knows, from her previous work, the impact this kind of strategy could have on individuals. Prior to Mungall’s election to the B.C. legislature in 2009, she spent two years working full-time in one of Nelson’s five food banks.
A former forestry town, poverty looks a lot different in Nelson than it does in urban centres like Vancouver and Victoria, Mungall says.
“You’ll see people panhandling in the downtown core, but you won’t see them sleeping in doorways,” she says. “You’ll see them sleeping in the bush,” even in winter.
And since Nelson is the site of the only emergency homeless shelter between Calgary and Kelowna, the 18 shelter beds are always full, adds Rona Park, board chair of the Nelson Social Planning Action Network (SPAN).
Park estimates that of a population of just over 10,200 people, approximately 50 chronically homeless people live in Nelson.
“We are one of the communities that has very high rents,” Park says, and a “very low vacancy rate.”
As is the case in Vancouver and Victoria, poverty extends beyond homelessness in Nelson. “One in five people attending our food banks are children,” Park says, “so we know families are involved.”
SPAN is in the process of developing its own poverty reduction strategy for Nelson. This work follows in the footsteps of communities like Revelstoke, which passed its own plan in 2012.
For now, SPAN—an organization that includes representatives from the local business community, educators, and service providers—is scanning the existing community assets available to low-income people.
Park says Nelson and other communities could address poverty immediately by “ensuring a good distribution of the wealth that is here, making sure our food systems and employment skills training programs that we do have here are getting accessed, [and] that seniors are getting the entitlements that they need.”
Eventually, however, Park hopes SPAN’s plan can create “more systemic change.” With work starting on the plan next spring, however, change will be gradual; Park estimates that implementing the plan could take 10 years.
And for all her work in the community, Park is aware that many key issues related to tackling poverty are out of her hands. So she supports Mungall’s bill because only the B.C. government can raise social assistance rates, provide more employment skills training, and provide more affordable housing.
The solutions are widely discussed. “[But] B.C. just isn’t doing it,” Park says.