Data the key to fighting poverty

By Grant LaFleche, The Standard

There are some figures that are so large, it is actually hard to get our brains around them.

Like $1.38 billion.

That is a pile of money so vast, so outside our usual experience, we can’t really fathom it. That’s the kind of money you need to launch animals into orbit, or build a Bond villain lair under a mountain.

It’s not a sum that means anything to us.

But it should.

The staggering figure of $1.38 billion is the total estimated cost of poverty in Niagara.

To be more specific, it is the cumulative cost of social programs, health care and estimated loss of economic activity in Niagara created by having some 66,000 citizens trying to live on about $12,000 per year.

That so many of our brothers and sisters are subsisting on such meager incomes is shocking enough. The costs associated with that tragedy are equally unacceptable.

If the human stories of those struggling are not enough for you to see the serious problem of poverty, these numbers should prod your inner Scrooge into action.

(The scary bit about these figures is that they were calculated using data collected prior to the crushing 2008 economic downturn. The update will likely be grim.)

Before we can go further, however, I should put some cards on the table.

Possibly you remember a column I wrote two weeks ago about Niagara not having access to critical data regarding poverty and social health?

It turns out my concluding thoughts in that column were not exactly accurate.

Which is to say, wronger than the Bee Gees playing at a Jimi Hendrix tribute concert.

The data is there. A mountain of it. Most people — including myself, until recently — just didn’t know about it.

That is not to say it’s a secret. It’s publicly available, if not vigorously advertised.

And it’s very well known in certain circles — namely the groups and individuals working on anti-poverty programs in Niagara. There is some very interesting work being done at Niagara Region to build an accurate picture of poverty in Niagara (including an online mapping tool you can find at maps.niagararegion.ca/prosperityinitiative).

There are small, individual programs working in neighbourhoods and big-picture efforts like those spearheaded by a coalition of groups ranging from the Region to Brock and others called Niagara Connects.

The hows, wheres and whys of poverty in Niagara are not the mystery they sometimes get painted as.

We have a great deal of information to help guide efforts to help people, and I will be writing a lot more about it in future columns.

For now, I want to look at that one, slap-you-in-the-face-with-a-glove-filled-with-rocks sum:

$1.38 billion.

We’ve reported that figure before in the Standard, but it went largely unnoticed (which alone is pretty shocking in an era of politicians constantly telling us how concerned they are about the way public money is spent.)

The number was crunched in a 2012 joint report by Brock University, the Niagara Workforce Planning Board and the Niagara Research and Planning Council (now called Niagara Connects).

It was the first attempt to quantify the cost of poverty in our community and adds together three distinct factors connected to poverty.

First is the estimated loss of economic activity these 66,000 citizens could generate in better circumstances: $662 million.

Next is what the report labelled “social costs,” essentially the consequences of poverty — health-care costs, the costs of combating associated crime, and other economic expenses: $277 million.

And finally there is the hard cost of social programs like Ontario Works and employment insurance: $439 million.

The report’s authors were careful to point out some of these figures are based on educated assumptions, using the best data at hand and calculation models established in other municipalities, to get a handle on hard-to-quantify figures.

Even if we accept that the figures don’t perfectly hit the bull’s-eye, it’s still something we cannot ignore.

Clearly, if our poorest citizens are costing the system a billion dollars, the system isn’t working.

But if your response is, “Well, these people shouldn’t cost us so much,” you’re not grasping the scope of the problem.

Cutbacks to social services — the easy and ignorant path likely to be suggested soon at a regional council near you — solves nothing.

The focus should be to increase the ability of our poorest citizens to earn a livable wage. In the long term, that will reduce the impact on the public purse more than budget cuts ever could.

What we need is intelligent use of the data and a long-term vision from our political leaders.

To read the 2012 Niagara Connects report go online to niagaraknowledgeexchange.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/05/Policy_Brief_Poverty_Holding_Niagara_Back.pdf

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Niagara Connects is a proud participating member of the Niagara Poverty Reduction Network.