Former Dufferin County warden talks poverty, says community isn’t ‘healthy, wealthy’ for all residents

January 18, 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Mike Pickford

While poverty has long been considered one of Dufferin County’s “chief concerns” a former warden believes the municipality “should be doing more” to help its most hidden community.

John Oosterhof was in Orangeville this past Monday (Jan. 15) to tell the town council that Dufferin County isn’t the “healthy, wealthy” community it appears to be. He called on Council to take a stand and help what has become a growing issue throughout the rural municipality in recent years, stating “poverty costs us too much to simply do nothing.”

Currently a member of the Dufferin County Poverty Reduction Task Force, the former Grand Valley mayor has long championed the need to address poverty in the region. Just last year Dufferin received a comprehensive report stating that one in 10 residents are living in poverty. Based on the county’s population, that means approximately 6,000 residents are living in need. We just don’t see it, says Mr. Oosterhof.

“In Dufferin County, by and large, poverty is hidden unless you are working in the industry. Sure, income and housing prices are above average, but not everyone is fortunate enough to be in and around that bracket,” Mr. Oosterhof told Council. “People are reluctant to seek out help because of the shame and stigma surrounding poverty. There is a general ignorance of the problem too. That leads to denial, stereotypes and misconceptions of people living in poverty.”

According to a report put together by the United Nations in 1998, poverty is defined as a denial of choices and opportunities for individuals, while also considered a violation of human dignity. The report goes on to state that poverty means a lack of basic capacity to participate effectively in society, not having enough to feed and clothe a family and not having a job to earn one’s living. It means insecurity, powerlessness and exclusion of individuals, households and communities. It often implies living on marginal or fragile environments.

In 2017, Dufferin County spent in the region of $4.7 million on social assistance benefits alone, according to Mr. Oosterhof. He estimated that poverty cost each household between $2,300 and $2,900 last year.

“We should care because it costs us an awful lot of money,” Mr. Oosterhof noted.

The County’s Poverty Reduction Task Force has identified six pressure points it needs to address in an attempt to solve the problem – housing, aging in place, social assistance rate, precarious employment, food insecurity and childhood development. Rather than simply increase budgets and offer those in need more money, Mr. Oosterhof believes the County needs to address the root cause of the issue.

“I think we have to do a lot more than just expand the programs we have. We have to dig a little deeper than that,” he said. “We need to find local champions to lead this fight against poverty.”

That is where Orangeville Council comes in. Mr. Oosterhof indicated there was no quick fix on the table as of this moment, instead challenging local councillors to come up with ideas of their own to tackle poverty.

“McMaster University found a 21-year difference in life expectancy between people living in poverty and the wealthiest residents of Hamilton. Across the country, 3 million Canadian households are precariously living in unaffordable, below standard or overcrowded conditions. One in every five households spends 50 percent of their low income on rent. This is an issue everywhere, not just in Dufferin County, but it’s one I’d like to see us address locally,” Mr. Oosterhof said.

He added, “Reducing poverty is good, economic investment. It’s also a challenge. It cannot be solved in isolation, we have to work together and have a joint attack on this. We need to understand the problem, if we don’t there’s no way we will be able to fix it.”

The presentation hit close to home for Councillor Nick Garisto, who noted if it weren’t for his annual Council stipend he would have found himself under the poverty line last year.

“Myself, (because of health conditions), I didn’t work for a year. I only received… about $13,000 (in social assistance). It was this position as a councillor that saved me from losing my home and being in the streets,” Coun Garisto said.

Council was certainly left with food for thought, with Mr. Oosterhof announcing he would be returning to Town Hall this spring to make an official request of Council to see what they would be willing to do to help push for the changes that need to be made to correct some of the issues.

Dufferin’s Poverty Reduction Task Force held a Community Poverty Reduction Summit in Orangeville yesterday (Jan. 17). The organization held three panels with various speakers discussing poverty and its effects on the local community. For the full story, see next week’s Citizen.

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