Column: Act to mitigate income gaps

My latest in The StarPhoenix

The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce is running a campaign currently that says we are On Track as a province.

It’s absolutely correct in many ways. Saskatoon is booming and, for many, life has never been better. Even the Riders are winning again.

Yet for some, things aren’t on track. It can be seen in a really busy Saskatoon Food Bank, in a Friendship Inn that’s had to double its size, in the more than 100,000 meals served annually at the Salvation Army, and at a YWCA that’s perpetually full with homeless women.

There are the people Saskatchewan’s boom has left behind.

The concept is known as income inequality. It has always been around and likely will be around forever. But it starts to become a problem when the increasingly wealthy drive up the cost of living for those on the bottom end of the income scale. When it reaches the point where the cost of rent and living is seen as impossible, some people start to make bad decisions.

Identifying the problem is easy; coming up with solutions is hard.

With income inequality growing, I was curious to see what ideas some Saskatchewan political leaders had on the subject. I had a chance to talk separately with both Liberal Leader Ryan Bater and NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter over the past two weeks.

Batter spoke passionately about education funding, with more community resources such as nurses, social workers and other community sources in schools.

It is something that is being tried with the new St. Mary’s School in Saskatoon. The idea is that by providing more resources for students, the school would step into the gaps being left by some family situations, while at the same time the additional resources would free up teachers to teach. A better foundation in education, it is hoped, will keep at-risk students in school longer and give them better prospects for the future.

Lingenfelter talked about bringing back more targeted job training programs, important in ensuring that someone would be able to take advantage the opportunities of tomorrow even if they weren’t able to do so today. Lingenfelter’s educational approach targets the problem later in life than does Bater’s, but both see the solution to lifting people out of poverty as giving them the skills required to make more money.

Lingenfelter also made reference to rent control. It’s a notion that’s controversial here, but has worked quite well in many other Canadian and U.S. cities. While the NDP hasn’t released details of its rent control policy, properly implemented, such an approach has benefited both developers and renters elsewhere.

Ward 2 Coun. Pat Lorje took both a short-and a long-term approach to the problem. She called for additional short-stay detox beds outside the urban core where people can find a safe place to sleep off and start getting help for their addictions.

She also advocated for a wet shelter in Saskatoon. These have been used successfully to help alcoholics to break their physical addiction to liquor and to control their relapses and put them in a position for successful rehab.

Lorje noted the concentration of poverty in some core neighbourhoods needs to be addressed. Not all poverty in those neighbourhoods is naturally occurring. Some of it is caused by the rental supplement being given out based on proximity to support services. With many of the addiction and mental health services being administrated at St. Paul’s Hospital, it forces many to live near the hospital to get the rental supplement.

Ward 1 Coun. Darren Hill sees the city’s role in supporting and pushing both the provincial and federal government for action on the issue. While the city is often held responsible for many of issues affecting local neighbourhoods, it’s provincial and federal policies that need to change.

Coun. Hill also mentioned the importance of the local neighbourhood plans. Urban theorist and author Richard Florida recently spoke of the economic revival in Pittsburgh and said a key to its success was turning over local decisions to the neighbourhoods. It’s something that Saskatoon has emulated. Many of the positive things that have happened in some neighbourhoods are based on local input.

We have many options. I had some quick conversations with four politicians and could have written a series of columns on each of their ideas. The ideas are out there, so I hope the will to act on them is there, too.

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