Housing key to breaking cycle of poverty

By  Jack Panozzo, Catholic Register Special
  • January 29, 2009
{mosimage}The face of poverty and homelessness is often hidden in Canada. Unlike the stark faces of children and families that stare at us from photos in stories about the millions huddled together in refugee camps in Africa and elsewhere, we do not see the same faces here.

They are hidden away in shabby apartments or isolated rural areas. They are not gathered together in camps as in Darfur but they still shoulder the burden of poverty and homelessness made more stark and bitter because it occurs in a land that is bountiful and abundant.

When the Ontario government released its long-awaited poverty reduction plan, its strategy set a target of reducing the number of children living in poverty by 25 per cent over the next five years. While all low-income families were to see the benefits, the proposed plan’s target is  “to move 90,000 kids out of poverty.”

The poverty level was set using Statistics Canada’s Low Income Measure (LIM) based on  50 per cent of median income — so for  a single mom with two kids living in Toronto, that’s about $27,000 in 2008. A single mom and two kids: just as in those refugee camps whose reality seems so far  away, those most adversely affected and most vulnerable here, like there, are small families. They are very much like members of another family we recall at Christmas, who were homeless and could find no room at an inn; they could sleep among the stable animals.

The recent moves by the provincial government are hopeful. They have listened to those advocating for actions to break the cycle of poverty now affecting the most vulnerable in our society to reduce child poverty by an overall target of 25 per cent within five years. The enhancement of the Ontario Child Benefit by $230 annually over five years will make a positive difference for families struggling to pay the bills.

An Ontario Association of Food Banks report released at Queen’s Park in November showed that poverty costs Ontario a staggering $38 billion a year. Ontario’s poorest households bear the brunt of it, but the social costs due to poverty are between $10.4 billion and $13.1 billion every year — that’s some $2,900 per household. What’s more, we all pay increased costs for health care and social assistance and lost tax revenue. That’s why a long-term investment in combating poverty now and creating more affordable housing will pay dividends for everyone.

Housing, both affordable and supportive, is vital if this poverty reduction is to work. That’s why one is heartened that in the area of housing, the province says it plans to initiate a $60 billion infrastructure program to be implemented over 10 years to fund social housing; it is slated to start this year. There is also an annual commitment of $5 million for the Rent Bank that in the past four years prevented 15,500 evictions.

With changes to social services in the mid-1990s and rents rising as income declines, it is no surprise that a Daily Bread Food Bank study found that the average person using a food bank will spend about 77 per cent of their income on rent every month. One in six families uses more than 30 per cent of its meagre income for rent; sometimes it’s over 50 per cent. A full housing strategy still must be developed and implemented. It just makes sound economic sense.

Any housing strategy must contain a commitment to both new and renovated housing and be more affordable for low-income households. A commitment to affordable housing must be reflected in the 2009 provincial budget. Catholic Charities, as with other groups, will advocate for more affordable and supportive housing, and watch closely how it is elaborated in the budget.

The Ontario Catholic bishops have said that it is the responsibility of governments to protect those who are marginalized in society; provide economic security and an acceptable quality of life for those who are unemployed, displaced, impoverished or afflicted by a mental or physical disability. It is our responsibility as citizens to see to it that this happens, now more than ever.

A safe home in a flourishing and secure community is among the most fundamental desires of every person, every family.  We know it is central to the development of children and school-age youngsters. That’s why it is so important, urgent really, to break the cycle of poverty.

The government’s poverty reduction strategy is recognition of the importance of making an investment now to end poverty and development of more affordable housing. It is a start and it needs to be implemented rapidly. Children locked into a cycle of poverty and homeless today will likely be held captive to it as adults tomorrow.

There is an old African proverb that says it takes a village to raise a child. It recognizes the importance of home and community in the development of our children. It is also a reminder that we all have a responsibility to make sure it happens. We need only to look into the faces of these children here to spur us all on to act. They are our future and our hope.

(Jack Panozzo manages the Social Justice and Advocacy program for Catholic Charities of the archdiocese of Toronto.)

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