After the billions of dollars spent by government and communities to fight poverty, you might ask: has there been any measurable impact? Are people better off now than they would be otherwise – or are we just fooling ourselves thinking we can change the economic course of history? The answer: an unequivocal “yes, we have had an impact.” So why is fighting poverty still such a major priority for the Montreal Jewish community?

It’s a legitimate question, and one we’ve grappled with ourselves. The answer, in short, comes down to a changing – and aging – community, the need for more comprehensive government programs, and a reconceptualization of what a “solution to poverty” might look like.

Who we are today is not who we were 50 years ago.

Our community is evolving demographically: we have more seniors and less children than ever before. As people live longer on fixed incomes, the numbers of poor among our seniors continues to grow, as does the pressure on public pensions, health services, and long-term care in Canada. The federal government, however, has made significant strides in providing a minimum base income for seniors through a universal component (Old Age Security), a negative income tax (Guaranteed Income Supplement), and an earnings component (Canada/Quebec Pension Plan).

Building on this momentum, a significant increase in federal and provincial family benefits in 2016 and 2018 ensured that low-income families were given a major boost in base incomes. Ottawa enhanced the Canada Child Benefit and Quebec followed suit this year. And Quebec’s Social Assistance program put in place a plan that has significantly increased welfare for the most vulnerable who are deemed unable to work, increasing benefits each year for the next five years.

But not everyone is reaping the benefits of these programs.

Vulnerable and older adults aged 45+ living alone, single parent families, and people living with disabilities, both mental and physical, often fail to profit from these well-meaning legislative campaigns. In addition to living in poverty, many of these individuals and families struggle to be included in our community. Both social and economic exclusion are working against our most vulnerable.

Poverty isn’t solved by money alone.

One thing is clear: our community cannot eliminate poverty. It is the role of government to provide the economic safety net, to provide funding for low-cost housing and help counter unemployment amongst our most vulnerable. What we as a community can do is invest our hearts and our resources to offer programs and services that deliver lasting change for the future.

Our goal is to help today so individuals will not need us tomorrow.

When individuals and families approach us for financial help, we see this as an opportunity to target some of the root causes of their financial instability and help them become healthier and stronger, and where possible, more independent.

How do we help? We look at their situation, their resources, and their capacity. We respond immediately to a crisis. We ask the questions that allow us together to come up with a long-term solution. Investing in social service supports, learning programs, after-school homework programs, providing mentors with whom children and youth can have a positive relationship, services to vulnerable young adults, financial capacity-building, integration of newcomers, employability supports, skill-building workshops, internships for hard to place individuals, career counselling – these services are all focused on helping our clients become self-sufficient. To help them develop the skills and emotional confidence to move forward, see a future, and make a plan to reach their goals.

Our mission remains clear: we are the fishing rod. We can and do provide a fish in times of crisis, but we know what the best practices are. Passively providing money does not reduce poverty, is not sustainable and does not have a long-term impact. Helping people with support and counselling, including them in our community, providing training, jobs, skills, and affordable housing does.

Our services are based on a plan and criteria that apply to everyone. We aim to help people help themselves and believe that people, when given the chance and the support to make their best decisions, will rise to the occasion. It’s a battle we think is worth fighting for.

Susan Karpman is Chief Program Officer at Ometz.

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