OPINION: What are we doing about poverty?

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What are we doing? cover art

It was Mahatma Gandhi who said the true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members. 

In that regard, Haliburton County receives a failing grade. 

For decades, the Highlands has been recognized as one of the poorest in Ontario, sharing that unenviable title with Manitoulin Island. 

Poverty has been left unchecked far too long, being allowed to fester to such a point that, today, more than 17 per cent of people in Haliburton County are lacking the resources required to provide the basic necessities of life. 

Really think about that for a moment. Almost one in five people here are struggling to get by. 

It’s even worse for kids – around 25 per cent of our youth are living in poverty. 

While the pandemic may have exacerbated the issue, this is something people like Tina Jackson, executive director of the Haliburton County Heat Bank and Central Food Network, have been dealing with for quite some time. 

Since 2014, the heat bank has seen its clientele more than double. Our food banks are finding it difficult to keep up with demand. A report put to County council in 2019 pegged the region’s living wage at $19.42. 

Now, this was pre-pandemic so we can almost guarantee that number has increased over the past three years, but still… That’s a lot of money when you consider a major part of the County’s economy is centred around tourism, which isn’t generally a high-paying field. 

Fay Martin, an academic that has spent 30-plus years studying poverty in Haliburton County, suggests we are where we are by design. 

Because our economy is based on tourism, a vast majority of jobs are seasonal and low paying. It’s hard to turn that around. 

If our restaurants began paying employees a living wage, they would have to increase prices, likely pushing more people to eat at home. The same can be said for almost any service; eventually, the consumer is the one that pays. 

In a nutshell, tourists will find somewhere else to go if Haliburton County becomes an expensive place for them to play. 

We must look at other avenues to bring about change. 

Perhaps our local leaders can take an active role in trying to bring more small to medium-sized businesses to Haliburton County. Alliston has Honda, and, more recently, Smith Falls attracted Canopy. 

Another idea is to entice an organization like Fleming College to establish a trades school here. The arts community has flourished in the years since the Haliburton School of Art + Design opened. Is it that unthinkable to imagine a trades school leading to an influx of muchneeded jobs, and workers, in fields such as plumbing, carpentry, welding and electrical? 

It’s not enough anymore to just sit by and acknowledge that we have a problem. We need to push our local leaders to be more proactive in coming up with strategies to tackle poverty. 

As the last 20-plus years have shown, this isn’t an issue that’s going to fix itself.