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Community-based solutions represent our best chance to beat poverty

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Poverty reduction has no silver bullet. Nor should we expect one. The exhausting and overwhelming work of reducing poverty must take a comprehensive, long-term approach that is led by the communities in need.  These communities, who struggle against poverty and social exclusion every day, have repeatedly said this work requires more than a simple transfer of money.

Last month, an editorial by the Winnipeg Free Press reflected on a recently published a report that highlighted Manitoba's persistent and disheartening poverty rates. The article criticizes the provincial government for  "shipping tax dollars to a variety of community groups and organizations," implying this is a "political goal" and comes at the expense of broader poverty reduction efforts (such as raising minimum wage or increasing social assistance rates). This is a misguided idea that does not appreciate the critical role of locally managed front-line services in poverty reduction.

To be clear, significant poverty reduction will require a substantial increase in social assistance rates, as well as a higher minimum wage. $15.53 per hour is the wage necessary for a fully employed single mother to raise her child at the poverty line. These are the recommendations put forward by the report highlighted in the Winnipeg Free Press editorial, and these recommendations are championed by Make Poverty History Manitoba, along with other community organizations.

The Winnipeg Free Press, for its part, has criticized the provincial government for inadequate social assistance rates (such as the editorial mentioned above), and multiple columns have explored the potential for a guaranteed annual income to replace our exhaustively complicated welfare system (Generosity doesn't solve poverty, Dec. 17, 2014; An end to the perpetual welfare trap? Aug. 22 2012).

A central element to poverty is of course a lack of money, and as a member of Make Poverty History Manitoba, the Canadian CED Network--Manitoba is supportive of efforts that will put more money in poor people’s pockets so they have a solid footing to gain the education and skills required for financial independence.

However, sometimes advocacy for increased social assistance rates or a guaranteed annual income (mincome) can underestimate the importance of front-line community services. Whether it is adult education opportunities, parenting programs, or job training for people caught up in the justice system, locally adapted services serve an essential role for families struggling under the weight of poverty and social exclusion.

The best way to understand and address poverty in Manitoba is to listen to those who live in poverty, and to those who work with it every day. These ground-level voices have repeatedly told us that overcoming poverty and social exclusion is not just a matter of income.

A history of colonialism and disinvestment has led to systemic challenges that will not disappear with a cheque. Whether trauma, mental illness, addictions, racism, or poor education and employment opportunities, there are more barriers than just money. These interconnected, deep-rooted problems require hands-on work, and resolving them is a long, difficult process. But it can be done, and we can do it at the same time as increasing social assistance and raising the minimum wage -- if we make it a priority. A blended approach will be the most successful. 

Community-based organizations will not single-handedly solve poverty, nor will food banks, the government, or the private sector. But many children and families have overcome the challenges of poverty with the help of community-based services that are reducing barriers and creating opportunities. Each of these instances breaks the vicious cycle of poverty and has lasting ripple effects in our communities. 

To its credit, this week the provincial government completed its commitment to increase its rental subsidy program to 75 per cent of median market rent -- two years early -- which will help both the working poor and families on social assistance. Furthermore, more community-based organizations are receiving multi-year, stable funding. Both initiatives have been requests of community organizations for years and are cause for celebration. But our work is hardly finished.

Low-income Manitobans deserve better and more substantial income supports as well as access to the services provided by community-based organizations with long-term, stable funding. It is misguided and irresponsible to suggest funding community-based organizations is merely a political goal, or that it undermines broader public poverty reduction efforts.

Rather, all of these efforts should be treated as complementary and essential components to long-lasting poverty reduction work -- efforts that are guided by the communities most in need, and the organizations that struggle against poverty day in and day out.

Darcy Penner is the Social Enterprise Policy & Program Coordinator for the Canadian Community Economic Development Network -- Manitoba.

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