Last spring, the Social Planning Action Network (SPAN) put out a survey to the community called, “Ideas Into Action” which asked four questions on community strengths, priority social issues and recommended actions.
As a follow up to this survey, SPAN decided to conduct three interviews with community members who have a direct link to one of the top social issues that were identified by the community results of the survey.
The Nelson Star has run a portion of each of these interviews in print and the full interviews are online at nelsonstar.com.
To leave feedback on these interviews or to get more information, visit spannelson.ca.
This week’s interview is with Andy Leathwood, Director of Innovative Learning Services, School District #8. SPAN sat down with Leathwood, to talk about the poverty he has seen in his 35 years working in the school system.
Over the years, what have you noticed about families struggling to make ends meet and the effects on their children?
I see it as an increasing problem. I don’t think the level of child poverty has actually maintained the same, I think it has gotten worse. We see far more parents struggling to do a lot of things. We see more parents struggling to provide food for their children to bring to school, but it’s also all those other things that we don’t see… kids choosing to not go on trips or take part in extracurricular activities. Over the years, I’ve seen a larger impact of poverty on kids.
What changes have you seen here in Nelson?
I can certainly say what we’ve done in the school district. We did a real analysis of our information and we really did see that poverty was a much greater issue. We’ve almost tripled the amount of money that we put into school meals, which is targeted specifically at feeding hungry kids.
We work with all of the schools on what we would see as hardship policies; if kids don’t have money how can they still take part in activities and so forth. I think that anyone who provides service is seeing that the impact of poverty is greater.
I’m on the board of Kootenay Kids, for example, and one of the things that they see is that it used to be that they would supply snacks for kids. Now when they do a program, whole families are coming in and they are looking for food. Service providers are taking more of their budgets and allocating it to something that they can do, which is when someone shows up at their door, they can actually provide them with some nutritious food.
There’s also some more dialogue happening around child poverty. It was something that had some stigma attached to it and there still is. We certainly know there are some parents who simply will not come forward. We say we have a hardship policy, come forward and I talk to some of those parents and they say, “Yeah, we don’t want to do that. We don’t want to go to the school and say we can’t afford the lunch program or we can’t afford to go on the ski trip.” There’s still a lot of that, but I think overall there’s a lot more awareness of it and more understanding that it’s an issue.
In our school district, the board has tasked it to a committee that I chair to actually do some public consultations on the impacts of poverty on school children and what we can do as a system to mitigate that. I think people assume if someone has a job, they are not poor and that’s not true at all.
Even in our own school district there are what I would call the working poor. They have jobs and so people automatically assume they are fine, but when you take a look at the realities of their life, their income levels, how much they pay for rent, the number of children they have, it actually doesn’t add up very well.
That’s part of the hidden side of poverty is that we make assumptions that people who are working part-time or are in a low paying job, that that’s a secondary income and commonly it’s not, it’s the only income. There are a lot of hidden aspects to it and I think we just need to be willing to talk about all of those things.
What is still lacking?
There’s still a need for awareness. Obviously, we can’t change wages and we can’t change the economic climate. There has to be more awareness of the real scope of the issue and there just has to be lots and lots of public dialogue about it. We have to get over the unwillingness of people to have difficult and challenging conversations because sometimes these conversations are sticky. We have to get over that and basically realize that it is a significant issue for a lot of our children. We have to find ways to go beyond the real obvious stuff. It’s not that hard to feed hungry children, but it is really hard to say what we else can do to mitigate the effects. How do we reduce the stigma, the shame? How do we find other ways to meaningfully engage those families?
One in four people who access our local food banks are children. In a city of 10,000, does this surprise you?
It surprises me because I thought it would be higher, more like two out of four and the reason is because I know a lot of families who struggle to put food on the table.
I think it’s a lot harder to feed a family of four than it is to feed a family of one on a particular income level. So I’m a bit surprised at that statistic only because I think from my perception of dealing with kids, I assume it might be higher because I can’t begin to imagine how some of these families put food on the table everyday.
What changes do we need to see in order to help eliminate child poverty?
(In 1989, the House of Commons voted unanimously to eliminate child poverty by 2000. Here we are in 2013 and while the rate of child poverty has fluctuated over the years, there hasn’t been a significant, sustained reduction)
There’s no grand solution to this, but what I see is that every little agency is trying to deal with this. We provide more food for hungry children and we provide money for different things that people can’t afford.
What’s lacking, is we do not have a coordinated approach to reducing child poverty. It’s great and wonderful for the House of Commons to vote to end child poverty, but who cares, what the heck are you going to do about it and how are you going to engage a plan in which we all are contributing and working together? That’s what I see.
There isn’t a coordinated approach to child poverty.
Do you feel people of Nelson and surrounding area are aware of how many of their friends and neighbours are struggling?
I think that people who interact with the food banks, people who work in the school system know it. Does the general population of Nelson know it? I don’t believe so. I think they know if their neighbour is struggling and they help by giving them food from their garden or they do something.
Again, if there’s no coordinated approach, there isn’t that information that gets out to every household for everyone to understand. The reality is we do have a wealth distribution issue in our country. We have people who are wealthy and we have people who are struggling every day. Until we can devise a system in which that gap is narrower, then I think we will always have that situation.
What we have seen is we can’t always rely on the philanthropy of people to feed the hungry masses. We have to find a structural change which allows them to have enough of an income to lead a life with some dignity in it.
If you could whisper one thing about poverty into the ear of every community member, what would you say?
It’s all of our problem. It’s not just a problem for the people who are poor. It’s all of our issue. We have an equal responsibility to look at it and deal with it.