Poverty carries a significant price tag

Tyler Clarke
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Family doctor and Upstream Institute for a Healthy Society director Ryan Meili. 

Spending more money on anti-poverty efforts is one of those instances “where the nice thing to do is also the smart thing to do,” Ryan Meili concluded.


This, the family doctor and Upstream Institute for a Healthy Society director said, is the key conclusion he’s drawn from the institute’s estimation that poverty costs the Saskatchewan economy $3.8 billion per year.

Of this cost, about two-thirds is made up of lost opportunity such as decreased economic productivity and tax income, and the balance consists of poverty-fueled use of social services, the judicial system and health services.

In short, these are “additional costs because we’re not being successful in dealing with poverty,” he explained.

“What we’re really hoping for -- and this is the reason for crunching the numbers and starting a program called ‘Poverty Costs’ -- is that people take into account both the human costs with people having to deal with the suffering that comes with poverty … but also the economic costs.

“Poverty is not an inevitable side to a growing economy, it’s actually an impediment.”

A labyrinth of issues and complexities accompanies poverty, Meili said, noting that the $3.8 billion figure represents what happens after the problem has had time to fester.

“We don’t see this as a partisan issue (and) we don’t see this as pointing the blame at the government,” he said. “This number is new information, and it’s a really great reason to act.”

The Poverty Costs campaign wasn’t supposed to launch in March, Meili said, noting that they’re still in their earliest stages of mapping out an approach. Meili shared the $3.8 billion figure during a speech on Friday -- a surprising number that garnered immediate media attention.

The early response has been overwhelming, he said, noting that people are starting to see the benefits of prevention over cleaning up messes after the fact.

The $3.8 billion figure makes a strong case for governments to fund anti-poverty initiatives, he said.

In Prince Albert, the portion of people living on a low-income is about 19.1 per cent, Statistics Canada reported in 2010 -- a figure slightly above the provincial rate of 14 per cent.

Reasons for poverty vary, Riverbank Development Corporation manager Brian Howell said, noting that a key challenge in Prince Albert is the high cost of housing -- a challenge that can affect nearly every facet of one’s life.

“If you’re in the private sector and rents are high and you have a limited income, you can often get into trouble and that can mean having to quit school or quit your job if you don’t have a place to live,” he said.

“You often see people paying 50 to 60 per cent of their income on rent … so you don’t have enough money to spend on food, so your diet’s not as good and you run into health issues, which cost the medical health system lots of money in terms of diabetes and just diseases and issues related to improper diet.” 

Another challenge comes with job availability and residents’ readiness to work, Ready to Work Inclusion Program employment outreach specialist Dave Hobden said.

The Ready to Work Inclusion Program helps link people who have disabilities with employers, as well as prepare them for introduction or reintroduction into the working world.

What we’re really hoping for -- and this is the reason for crunching the numbers and starting a program called ‘Poverty Costs’ -- is that people take into account both the human costs with people having to deal with the suffering that comes with poverty … but also the economic costs. Poverty is not an inevitable side to a growing economy, it’s actually an impediment.” Ryan Meili

“Employment gives you that sense of well-being, you feel good about yourself and you have less free time on your hand to get into the negative vices and things like that, and it’s good for your self esteem,” Hobden said.

Even for those who get lower-level jobs, it’s a decent start in breaking one’s cycle of poverty, he added.  

“When you walk in and you see how happy they are to have a job – it’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s not a handout -- they’re earning the money and contributing something back to the employer.”

With the $3.8 billion figure out there, Meili said that he hopes to see the provincial government come up with a poverty reduction plan.

“Right now it’s only Saskatchewan and British Columbia that don’t have poverty reduction plans,” he said.

Plans vary drastically from province to province, but could include things like minimum wage guarantees, affordable childcare, affordable housing programs, as well as specific goals with timelines.

All levels of government should be involved, he said, noting that it’s impossible to have an effective poverty reduction plan without the municipal and federal levels of government working in consort with the provincial government.

Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society is expected to launch their Poverty Costs initiative next month, at which time public and government consultations are expected to begin.

A timeline has not been set up yet, but Meili said that he hopes to see the effort include a stop in Prince Albert.

“I think you always will have people who need help from the rest of us, for one reason or another, whether it’s mental health, disabilities … some people just can’t participate in the regular economy and make money to survive,” Howell said.

Others people are pushed into poverty, but have the capacity to do better, he added.

“I think we have a responsibility to both groups. To the one, to provide them with an adequate standard of living if they’re not able to make it by themselves, and to the other, to help them have the opportunities to become (whatever they want to become) until their income is adequate to support them (and) they’re part of the economy and part of society.”

Upstream: Institute for a Healthy Society is an organization aimed at creating a healthy society through evidence-based people-centred ideas and is being headed by Meili, a Saskatoon-based family doctor and an unsuccessful Saskatchewan NDP leadership candidate last year.

The Riverbank Development Corporation is a registered non-profit whose mission, Howell explained, is “to strengthen our community through economic development, with a focus on the areas of nutrition, housing and employment, mostly.”

Organizations: Healthy Society, Upstream Institute, Riverbank Development Statistics Canada Saskatchewan NDP

Geographic location: Saskatchewan, British Columbia

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Recent comments

  • Cel
    February 05, 2014 - 15:20

    To Jon Melanson. Oh, so much easier said than done. Stop paying people for having illegitimate children? Would you prefer they stop feeding their children because they have no money to feed them ? Or better yet sterilize them and their children so they can't breed anymore? Yours is a short sighted and inhumane solution to a huge problem. We need a generation of committed front line people to work with these people to establish dignity and self worth back into their lives. And I mean a lot of people. Not the pathetic amount of people who work for social services at present. The social services workers of today are unforgivingly overworked and punished if they show an ounce of compassion. The system that's in place now is broken. Broken because the various levels of government are not committing enough resources to fix it. Either they are unforgivingly ignorant of the problem or they just don't give a shit. I personally think the later is true.

  • Jon Melanson
    February 05, 2014 - 11:51

    Mr. Meili is selective of facts and simply misguided, unfortunately. More truth would be cited in his report if he were truly vested in reducing poverty, rather than simply serving his political favour and the unionized welfare industry. He mentions not once that if third-world people are rewarded for producing illegitimate children, then the outcome will simply be more third-world people, more poverty, and more despair. Marriage and family is the evidenced bedrock of civilization and upward mobility; but this unfortunate fact does not fit in with Mr. Meili's very selective 'progressive' philosophies. Politicians such as Mr. Meili and most other politically correct affiliates of the welfare industry refuse to state the obvious: When you pay 3rd-world people to reproduce, the result is MORE generational welfare and MORE 3rd-world people. Our downtown is littered with horribly irresponsible young people who have been PAID and REWARDED for giving birth to an illigitimate child. This must stop. If you are really serious about reducing child poverty and/or poverty in general, child neglect, and additions to our harmful foster care industry, then we must: 1) Stop rewarding and paying people to have children. NOW. and 2) Place large signs at First Nation communities which read: "If you can't afford children, and are not prepared for children, then DON'T have any!" Only the above will diminish poverty. There's no other remedy. Society's greatest loss is the bedrock of civilization: the family; which has been replaced by government; unionized, benefited, and pensioned; all the while the poor innocent children suffer neglect, and even death. Clamping down on generational welfare -- while requiring individual responsibility -- is difficult, and unfortunately Mr Meili is not up to the task. His ideas are MORE government (which causes these problems in the first place), MORE taxes, and LESS personal responsibility.