Make our province livable for everyone
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The season of giving has come and gone, but the ongoing need felt by far too many Manitobans has remained.
Donations to local food banks and shelters have dropped significantly since the holidays, when spirits and generosity hit their annual peak. This is not unexpected — it’s an annual tradition of sorts, as the season of giving gives way to a cold and unforgiving January mood.
But this year’s decline in charitable giving has been magnified by inflation and increasing demand.
“It’s a bit scary out there, and we’re seeing more new people signing up because they just can’t manage their food bills,” Brandon Samaritan House executive director Barbara McNish told the Sun earlier this month.
This was shortly after Farm Credit Canada’s hunger-relief campaign donated more than 40 million meals worth of food to food banks and programs across the country. That this kind of program remains necessary in this day and age highlights the need for a better, more sustainable approach to poverty reduction in Manitoba.
Poverty isn’t a personal failing; it’s a symptom of deep-seated systemic issues. While non-profits provide essential frontline services for residents unable to meet their basic needs, the fact that these organizations are essential for tens of thousands of Manitobans is a governmental failing that requires urgent action.
Rates of poverty have been declining steadily over the last decade, yet in 2020, more than 87,000 residents were still living at or below the poverty line.
A report released by the Social Planning Council earlier this month indicates Manitoba has the highest rate of child poverty of any province in the country with one in five kids living in low income households. Food-bank use has nearly doubled since before the pandemic and the number of people accessing Harvest Manitoba who are employed has increased by 50 per cent. These numbers are reprehensible.
While poverty is a complex issue, affordability is a driving force.
Despite the widespread challenges of the pandemic, poverty rates decreased markedly between 2019 and 2020, thanks to provincial and federal emergency funding packages. Many of these programs have now ended and “the changes observed in market income, government transfers and poverty rates in 2020 were likely temporary,” according to Statistics Canada.
Though this financial aid was designed to be a stopgap measure, the immediate effects of these direct payments is notable. More cash in hand goes a long way for those on the brink.
To be sure, this week’s announcement by the provincial government of $58 million in new funding for 2023-24, on top of the $68 million it had pledged this fiscal year, to address homelessness has been greeted with guarded optimism by local advocacy groups.
This included McNish, who told us this week she was excited about the fact the province was investing in supportive housing and resources for people who need it.
“I’m very grateful that we have an emergency Safe and Warm Shelter,” she said, “but I also think that long term, you need to support people where they’re at.”
We couldn’t agree more. And in fact, more long-term stable support is needed.
Low-income workers in Manitoba will see a little help from the province later this spring when, come April, the province’s minimum wage will increase to $14.15, and then to $15 in October. It’s a long-awaited raise that will take Manitoba from the near bottom of provincial minimum-wage rates across the country to the middle of the pack.
It’s unlikely this increase will be enough to help residents deal with skyrocketing inflation, but at least it’s a start.
This is one of several “affordability measures” implemented by Premier Heather Stefanson’s Progressive Conservative party ahead of this fall’s provincial election. The party has made several one-time payments of several hundred dollars each to families and individuals in the form of tax rebates, family affordability benefits and the forthcoming “Carbon Tax Relief Fund.”
While the payments may win over some voters in October, it’s unfortunate that none provide long-term relief for high housing costs, interest-rate hikes and food prices that have increased by more than 10 per cent in the last year.
If the provincial government wants to lift more Manitobans, including thousands of children, out of poverty, it should prioritize raising employment and income assistance, housing subsidies and child benefits — existing programs that already offer targeted support for low-income households that are struggling the most under growing inflation.
Affordability will be a deciding factor for voters this fall. Manitobans can’t donate their way to a poverty-free society and non-profits can’t solve systemic issues through the goodwill of others. It’s up to policymakers to make bold commitments that will make this province livable for all.
» Winnipeg Free Press and The Brandon Sun