I’ve taken a bit of time to reflect this weekend of Thanksgiving about those in difficult circumstances in Edmonton. Last Tuesday, we heard some powerful and heart-wrenching testimony directly from Edmontonians living on the margins at a forum hosted by the Edmonton Coalition on Housing and Homelessness.
Edmonton is around the halfway mark of our declared 10-year intention to end homelessness. Admittedly, homelessness ending in a decade was a high mark to aim for. However, that bold goal kept us focused on what we needed to do, and still need to do. And while I am committed to the city’s work in the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness, I believe we should be applying the same discipline and rigour, perhaps even more, in seeking solutions to tackle poverty in Edmonton during our lifetime – as part of long-term prevention of homelessness.
Poverty is complex. Everyone seeks its end. Yet it’s pervasive, to the point that this city has over 37,000 children who deserve to live in far better conditions. The causes of poverty are multi-faceted, incremental, and anything but straightforward. Yes, income-support assistance falls under the purview of other levels of government, but at the municipal level, we can lead a dialog among partners, raise the level of aspiration, and do our part to explore innovative ways to help fellow citizens within our limited current resources. Our role at the municipal level is to spur other levels of government to live up to their responsibilities in supporting and empowering those in need.
Premier Redford has already announced an intention to tackle poverty, but pressure from the cities will keep the province on task. Local grassroots solutions may also prove more efficient and effective than top-down initiatives. Calgary and Red Deer have started long-term poverty-elimination initiatives. Edmonton’s mayor can provide real political leadership to keep this issue in the forefront.
Those living in poverty are disproportionately from immigrant or aboriginal backgrounds, and in both cases the federal government must help build capacity within these communities. Again, municipal leadership in coalition will secure the resources to create successful outcomes in these areas of federal responsibility and jurisdiction. A mayor can be a powerful advocate for these families and individuals, and I intend to be just that.
Edmonton City Council has already begun work on a long-term strategy on poverty and, if elected, I will elevate that effort to a proper Mayor’s Task Force. This will bring the focus and attention required to close the door on poverty in our city within a generation, especially amongst children.
Using the weight of the mayor’s office, I will work with a cross-section of Edmontonians to come together on the issue of poverty, challenging traditional notions and approaches to poverty alleviation. Their mandate? To research and build upon worldwide best practices, and to craft new, real-world strategies to reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty in our city.
Some of these strategies are simple, such as ensuring that everyone has access to our libraries. We know that education and equal access to knowledge are small but effective ways to help families improve their livelihoods. If elected mayor, I will propose that Edmontonians have equal access to one of society’s last truly public goods: our civic libraries. By doing away with the nominal annual fee, every citizen, regardless of economic situation, will have equal and barrier-free access to Edmonton’s much-celebrated library network. Just as library fees were waived to mark this centennial year, I am confident that — through sponsorships and administrative efficiencies that the library system is looking at — the fee can be completely eliminated without any impact on the tax levy.
Along the same vein, we can address poverty by building on innovations like one started in our city by youth-services librarian Tamsin Shute. Her “Welcome Baby in the Community,” a partnership between Edmonton Public Library and Alberta Health Services, gives parents access to literacy resources for their babies and preschoolers. Early childhood development has proven to be one of the most effective ways of preventing poverty and driving positive life outcomes. Initiatives like this are a way the city can help.
Although we will not eliminate poverty in one City Council term, I am confident that we will have shifted the debate and formed a broad consensus that a serious focus on poverty reduction is morally right — and offers a return on investment. Poverty in our city comes with enormous social costs in terms of policing, health care, and lost productivity. If we as a city can contribute to reducing the root causes of poverty, every citizen will benefit in the long term.