One in 12 Red Deer children live in low-income families and nearly a third of workers earn less than $15 an hour, according to statistics compiled by a pair of organizations pressing for a comprehensive poverty reduction strategy for Alberta.
While Central Alberta’s relative wealth cannot be denied, child and family poverty is more prevalent than many realize, said John Kolkman, research co-ordinator for the Edmonton Social Planning Council Wednesday. In Red Deer, more than 1,300 children are considered to be living below the poverty line, using Statistics Canada data from the 2006 census.
Given the economic downturn, those numbers are likely to rise, he said, noting the local unemployment rate has more than doubled over the past year to 7.3 per cent.
It is a situation that has long-term and broad implications. That is why the council and Public Interest Alberta have united to put poverty on the front burner and encourage Albertans to lobby the province to follow the lead of other jurisdictions, such as Ontario, where a plan has been composed to cut child and family poverty by 25 per cent over the next five years.
The Alberta organizations have organized seven meetings across the province to encourage business, social service, education, municipal and provincial leaders to brainstorm ways to tackle poverty. The first meeting kicked off Wednesday at Red Deer Lodge, drawing about 20 people from government and local service organizations. The goal is to encourage the government to take a long view of the poverty issue and develop a strategy with specific targets and identifiable success measurements.
“Governments — maybe it’s human nature — they are often driven by short-term considerations,” said Kolkman. However, not dealing with poverty can, over time, have broad effects on society, such as higher health care or justice costs. “We also have to look at the cost of doing nothing,” he said.
“It’s very much a pay me now or pay me later scenario.”
Public Interest Alberta executive director Bill Moore-Kilgannon was buoyed by the opening response to the groups’ campaign. A diverse group of local organizations were represented in Red Deer and there was widespread enthusiasm for a poverty reduction strategy. But groups did not gloss over the difficulties. Demands on social service agencies are growing at a time when budgets are beginning to shrink, he said.
In Newfoundland, efforts have been made to improve employment benefits for young families and access to early childhood education and child care. In Ontario, an existing child benefit for low-income families was doubled. Alberta does not have an equivalent benefit in place.
Similar meetings will be held next week in Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie, followed by Medicine Hat and Lethbridge the week after. Major meetings will take place in Calgary on Oct. 20 and Edmonton on Oct. 21.
Moore-Kilgannon is confident that with the right co-operation by groups across the province, Alberta could have its own poverty strategy underway within two years.