We cannot afford the cost of poverty

Tom Gribbons Commentary  - Telegraph Journal – Saturday August 30, 2014

Saint John has a serious and deeply-rooted problem with multi-generational poverty. The very future of this city could be at stake if significant progress is not made to end this social inequality. Our overall poverty rate stands at 20.8 per cent, and many who fall into that category are the third or fourth generation to live on limited incomes. According to the National Household Survey, approximately 28 per cent of children under the age of 18 in our city live below the poverty line, and when we look at children under the age of six that number climbs to 34 per cent.

This reality is simply not acceptable. Poverty not only impacts the individual, but also our city and province as a whole. Healthcare, education, employment, policing, and crime are negatively affected, and so too are progress and growth for our region.

The economics of poverty are also very real, with decreased tax revenues and high rates of government assistance.

The cost of poverty is one that we cannot afford.

Poverty can be greatly reduced if the leaders in our community work together across sectors to achieve a common goal. Government has an important role to play, and so does our business community.

A scene from Saint John’s north end. BCAPI is challenging all politicians to tackle poverty head-on in this election

The Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative (BCAPI) is non-profit, charitable organization dedicated to the reduction of poverty. Our group is composed of professionals, representatives from business and community organizations, and individuals who volunteer their time and expertise to break the cycle of multi-generational poverty.

BCAPI has a specific approach to addressing poverty – we focus on the root causes of poverty, our work is guided by research and evaluation, we support initiatives that help people lift themselves out of poverty and we act as a catalyst to help Saint John reduce poverty.

A significant contributing factor to the cycle of multi-generational poverty   in Saint John is the education achievement gap among low income children. Research has indicated that the education achievement gap often begins in the earliest and most influential years of a child’s life. With each year that the problem passes, unaddressed, the gap widens and the child falls devastatingly far behind.

Poverty in Saint John is quite geographically isolated among many individual neighbourhoods but is most concentrated in what we’ve termed the five priority neighbourhoods: the South End; the Waterloo Village; the Old North End; Crescent Valley; and, the Lower West   Side. BCAPI recently commissioned a study that revealed 50 per cent of students in Saint John’s priority neighbourhoods do not graduate from high school, on time. And only 67 per cent graduate after 5 years of high school.

BCAPI’s mantra has become “From Cradle to Career,” highlighting the fact that education begins before kindergarten and is designed to prepare our young people for successful participation in the workforce.

Education is the most powerful predictor of success in life, so BCAPI is involved in a range of educational support programs that begin with early childhood development and continue through to high school graduation. These educational support programs are targeted among specific schools in Saint John’s priority neighbourhoods with the goal of closing the education achievement gap and increasing our graduation rate.

If we want to tackle the problem of   multi-generational poverty in this city we should be focusing our attention on closing this education achievement gap. It is real, and it is measurable. Every child going into school should have an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter what their socio-economic background. We need early interventions to get them ready for kindergarten; they should have an equal opportunity to learn how to read and write by grade 2; they should have numeracy skills by grade 6; and, they should have the same opportunity to graduate with a meaningful high school diploma.

More money is needed in the poorest neighbourhoods for education. Without that, nothing will change.

Right now in New Brunswick we practise a one-size-fits-all approach. This means that the same dollar amount goes to every child’s education across the province, no matter what community he or she lives in and what particular   unique needs there might be.

In our opinion this is not the right approach. If you want children to have an equal chance for a successful outcome in school, you need to have inputs to the education system that differ depending on a community’s needs.

This is what BCAPI likes to call asymmetrical funding.

It’s up to us to provide children with the right tools to keep them in school. It’s up to society to step up and help these kids to succeed – we need them to succeed. And it’s up to our provincial government to recognize the importance of funding educational programs based on the unique needs of priority neighbourhoods.

Working to reduce poverty is the right thing; it’s the moral thing; it’s the ethical thing; and ,it also makes sense for our city and province.

Our hope during this election is that our community raise its voice to urge candidates in their riding to make this issue a priority and help our children succeed.

TOM GRIBBONS is Chairman of the Business Community Anti-Poverty Initiative. This essay is part of an ongoing series examining ways to close the education achievement gap.

Katie Bowden