Canada’s in­no­va­tive ap­proach makes great strides in win­ning the war on poverty

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - New York Times

Je­sus said the poor will al­ways be among us, but there are a lot of peo­ple in Canada test­ing that propo­si­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to re­cently re­leased data, be­tween 2015 and 2017, Canada re­duced its of­fi­cial poverty rate by at least 20 per­cent. Roughly 825,000 Canadians were lifted out of poverty in those years, giv­ing the coun­try to­day its low­est poverty rate in his­tory. How did it do it? The over­all econ­omy has been de­cent but not ro­bust enough to ex­plain these strik­ing out­comes. In­stead, one ma­jor fac­tor is that Canadians have or­ga­nized their com­mu­ni­ties dif­fer­ently. They adopted a spe­cific methodology to fight poverty.

Be­fore I de­scribe this methodology, let’s pause to think about what it’s of­ten like in Amer­i­can poor ar­eas. Ev­ery­thing is frag­mented. There are usu­ally a bevy of pub­lic and pri­vate pro­grams do­ing their own thing. In a town there may be four food pantries, which don’t re­ally know one an­other well. The peo­ple work­ing in these pro­grams have their heads down, be­cause it’s ex­haust­ing enough just to do their own work.

A com­mon model is one-donor-fund­ing-one­pro­gram. Dif­fer­ent pro­grams com­pete for funds. They jus­tify their ex­is­tence us­ing ran­dom­ized con­trolled ex­per­i­ments, in which re­searchers try to pin­point one in­put that led to one pos­i­tive out­put. The foun­da­tion heads, city of­fi­cials and so­cial en­trepreneurs go to a bunch of con­fer­ences, but these con­fer­ences don’t have much to do with one an­other.

In other words, the Amer­i­cans who talk about com­mu­nity don’t have a com­mu­nity of their own. Every day, they give away the power they could have if they did mu­tu­ally re­in­forc­ing work to­gether to change whole sys­tems.

In Canada it’s not like that. About 15 years ago, a dis­parate group of Canadians re­al­ized that a prob­lem as com­plex as poverty could be ad­dressed only through a mul­ti­sec­tor com­pre­hen­sive ap­proach. They re­al­ized that poverty was not go­ing to be re­duced by some in­no­va­tion – some cool, new pro­gram no­body thought of be­fore. It was go­ing to be ad­dressed through bet­ter sys­tems that were mu­tu­ally sup­port­ing and able to en­act change on a pop­u­la­tion level.

So they be­gan build­ing city­wide and com­mu­ni­ty­wide struc­tures. They started 15 years ago with just six cities, but now they have 72 re­gional net­works cov­er­ing 344 towns.

They be­gin by gath­er­ing, say, 100 peo­ple from a sin­gle com­mu­nity. A quar­ter have lived with poverty; the rest are from busi­ness, non­prof­its and gov­ern­ment.

They spend a year learn­ing about poverty in their area, talk­ing with the com­mu­nity. They launch a dif­fer­ent kind of con­ver­sa­tion. First, they don’t want bet­ter poor; they want fewer poor. That is to say, their fo­cus is not on how do we give poor peo­ple food so they don’t starve. It is how do we move peo­ple out of poverty.

Sec­ond, they up their am­bi­tions. How do we erad­i­cate poverty al­to­gether? Third, they broaden their vi­sion. What does a vi­brant com­mu­nity look like in which every­body’s ba­sic needs are met.

Af­ter a year they come up with a town plan. Each town’s poverty is dif­fer­ent. Each town’s as­sets are dif­fer­ent. So each town’s plan is dif­fer­ent.

The town plans fea­ture a lot of col­lab­o­ra­tive ac­tiv­ity. A food pantry might turn it­self into a job train­ing cen­ter by al­low­ing the peo­ple who are fed do the ac­tual work. The pantry might con­nect with lo­cal busi­nesses that change their hir­ing prac­tices so that high school diplo­mas are not re­quired. Busi­nesses might pledge to raise their min­i­mum wage.

By the time Canada’s na­tional gov­ern­ment swung into ac­tion, the whole coun­try had a base of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. The peo­ple in the field had a wealth of con­nec­tions and a sense of what needed to be done. The two big­gest changes were ef­forts in city af­ter city to raise the min­i­mum wage and the ex­pan­sion of a na­tional child ben­e­fit, which can net a fam­ily up to nearly $6,500 a year per child.

The Ta­ma­rack In­sti­tute, which pi­o­neered a lot of this work, serves as a learn­ing com­mu­nity hub for all the dif­fer­ent re­gional net­works.

Paul Born, head of the in­sti­tute, em­pha­sizes that the cru­cial thing these com­mu­ni­ty­wide col­lec­tive im­pact struc­tures do is change at­ti­tudes. In the be­gin­ning it’s as if every­body is swim­ming in pol­luted wa­ter.

Peo­ple are slug­gish, fear­ful, iso­lated, look­ing out only for them­selves. But when peo­ple start work­ing to­gether across sec­tors around a com­mon agenda, it’s like clean­ing the wa­ter. Com­mu­ni­ties re­al­ize they can do more for the poor. The poor re­al­ize they can do more for them­selves. New power has been cre­ated.

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