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Greg Neiman - Red Deer Advocate

Greg Neiman is a former Red Deer Advocate editor who now contributes regular columns and blogs which can be found in the Red Deer Advocate and on RedDeerAdvocate.com. Follow his blog at www.readersadvocate.blogspot.ca

Failing to act more costly than action

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Red Deer Advocate

On Saturday, it became widely known that Alberta Human Services had released its report, following a province-wide consultation on poverty. By Monday, the government site hosting the report, titled Albertans' Perspectives for a Social Policy Framework, had gone down.

When I called the department, I was assured IT staff would be dispatched to get it running again.

We are told the report is groundbreaking in scope, outlining the views of 14,000 people who took part in creating it, plus another 350 people who contributed views on poverty in the Aboriginal population.

Without being able to immediately quote the report directly, it is still commendable the province undertook to consult people in what is called Canada's richest province. Because by no means is the wealth of this province felt by everyone in it.

Thus, one of the reported strategies contained in the report, listed as “levelling the playing field” should be of interest to all of us.

The most recent Vital Signs report for Red Deer listed poverty, housing and hunger as the Number One top-of-mind issue for the city. Nearly one in five workers in Red Deer earns less than $12 an hour.

Considering Alberta's higher cost of housing, it follows that a lot of families are spending a higher portion of income on housing, leading to cutbacks in other areas. This affects the federal Low Income Cutoff (LICO) rates, which counts families whose regular daily expenses are fully taken to simply get by month-to-month.

Families with children and older people on fixed incomes will always feel this first. Vital Signs suggests about 17 per cent of Red Deer families with children live below the LICO standard. The national LICO average for all families is 10 per cent, according to the Conference Board of Canada. That means families with children are almost doubly represented among the ranks of the poor in Red Deer.

A recent study by Edmonton's Social Planning Council (which, thankfully, is available online) says poverty rates for families with children in Alberta increased 40 per cent in the last recession.

Red Deer had its representatives in the provincial consultation, but this was by no means the only regional effort into reducing poverty.

Just a couple weeks ago, Red Deer joined a national effort at poverty reduction. On Jan. 24, the Central Alberta Poverty Reduction Alliance (CAPRA) launched Red Deer as a member of Vibrant Communities Canada: Cities Reducing Poverty. That national association shares information and strategies, says a press report, “to reduce poverty through a systemic and universal approach.”

Whatever that means. This leads to my main complaint about these kinds of initiatives.

Lord knows, I've joined my share of them in the past as well. But if all we get from all the hard work CAPRA will put into its mandate; for all the years of study and investment from the Red Deer Community Foundation to create the annual Vital Signs reports, if all we get from this is more strategies and more statistics, nothing will be accomplished.

What's the distance between the Alberta human services department (and minister Dave Hancock) and the finance department (with minister Doug Horner)?

Much too distant, I fear, for the strategies in the province's new social policy framework to gain any real notice. Especially if the strategy is not “Conservative.”

Let us suggest that one effective way to reduce poverty in Canada's richest province would be to reduce the nation's highest provincial gap between rich and poor. To “level the playing field.”

If that is so, why does Alberta tax its lowest income bracket higher than most all other provinces in Canada?

Alberta has the lowest income tax rates in the industrialized world, but it's most effective only at the top income scale. The poor in Alberta pay more income taxes than the poor in Ontario, for instance.

Will that information leap the gap between the human services and finance departments? Sorry, not this year. We'll work on accessibility, dignity and inclusivity instead. We will strategize in systemic and universal ways.

The greatest product of the collision between government and poverty has been statistics. Nobody is ever short of statistics. Or strategies.

Or reports, languishing in the ether of a failed government web site.

The problem for all taxpayers, as noted in all the reports, is that failing to act is far more costly than acting, even if the action ends up being less than was hoped.

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