Three faces of poverty: Poverty and Plenty, Saint John

This is the second part of a three-part series on poverty in Canada. You can find the background and rest of the series here.

Canada’s East Coast is celebrated for its long history and vibrant culture. However, the decline of shipbuilding, fisheries, and other maritime industries have left Eastern Canada with relatively high levels of poverty and other social ills. Saint John, New Brunswick, is no exception to this trend. A city of 70000 with surrounding suburbs of 35000 or so people, Saint
John as a whole has a higher poverty rate (20%) than the province of New Brunswick in general (13%). Within Saint John the five so-called “priority neighbourhoods” – Crescent Valley, the Lower West Side, the Old North End, the South End, and Waterloo Village – contain the largest concentrations of the poor. I’ve been looking through a fascinating – well, fascinating to me anyway, I’m weird and like numbers – report called “Poverty and Plenty II”, put out in 2008 by a group called Vibrant Communities Saint John*. If you want to know about poverty in Saint John, this is the 100-page report to read.

Or at least this blog post. I’m not going to give you a run-down of ALL of the statistics, because while that does a surprisingly good job of expressing the character of the different neighbourhoods it doesn’t exactly make a scintillating read, but here are a few illustrative numbers:

– Saint John’s rate of poverty for children under 6 is an already terrible 34%; in Crescent Valley it reaches the appalling level of 77%.
– Four out of 5 priority neighbourhoods consist of 80% rental housing as opposed to 44% of Saint John total – 94% of Waterloo Village residents are in non-equity-producing rental units.
– Speaking of housing, 47% of priority neighbourhood residents pay more than 30% of their income on housing. Paying more than 30% of your income on housing is considered to be unaffordable and put you at risk of homelessness, meaning that nearly half of the priority neighbourhoods’ residents have been unable to secure affordable housing.
– Continuing to speak of housing, more than half of the housing in the priority neighbourhoods was built pre-1960 – in Waterloo Village this number rises to 78%. While older homes can be just as safe and comfortable as newer ones – my own home was built in 1901 and is mostly safe and decently comfortable – this requires investment and maintenance, neither of which low-rent landlords are well-known for providing. This is a useful indicator of the number of people living in substandard housing – i.e., a lot.
– Moving on, almost a quarter of Saint John adults have never completed high school. You’d think that was bad enough, except in one priority neighbourhood this rises to 43%. 43%! In comparison, Ontario’s rate of high school non-completion is around 14%. Needless to say this rises to much higher numbers for First Nations people and other marginalized groups. I don’t need to tell you how important a high school diploma is for a person’s future success and financial security. For every enterprising kid who dropped out of school to invent widgets in his parents’ garage and made billions there are thousands – maybe millions – who struggle daily with reduced work opportunities and drastically reduced income. These lower levels of education show that residents of the priority neighbourhoods are falling behind Saint John’s already low levels of educational attainment.
– 62% of Saint John residents are in the labour force, which is in line with the Canadian average. However, some priority neighbourhoods have rates of labour force participation as low as 34%. Not every can participate in paid work due to age, disability, unemployment, or caregiving responsibilities; not everybody wants or needs to, living off private means, public assistance, or relying on other family members to work for income. (This is why unemployment statistics only count people who are looking for work and are unable to get it, and not every adult who is not for whatever reason working for pay right now.) However I think we can all agree than 66% of adults being unable to work or to find work is too many.
– Single mothers in Saint John are, as they are basically everywhere in the world, more likely to live in poverty than singles without children or couples. Crescent Valley again grabs the brass ring with 71% (!) of its single mothers living in poverty.

With numbers alone we slowly start to build a picture of poverty in Saint John, and we see that it is younger, female, and parenting.

This report is a fantastic source of facts and statistics, though its prescriptions for improving these indicators are not that specific – “Key policies that still need work include: extending health benefits, expanding childcare programs, increasing training benefits for social assistance recipients, implementing a living wage, and increasing social assistance rates.” As people used to say when I was a kid, no duh. I especially like “implementing a living wage” [p. 15], because while I agree that everyone should earn a living wage, I don’t think any society in the world has ever managed to provide one for all of its members.

As fascinating as I found this report, the most fascinating thing about it is not the questions it answers but the questions it raises. How have these problems been addressed? What progress has been made? How has Saint John and its priority neighbourhoods fared in the economic turbulence of the past few years? What would be in Poverty and Plenty III?

I haven’t been able to find any hard data to answer these questions – probably because, due to the changes to the Census mentioned above, no one is collecting any – but Vibrant Communities Saint John seems to have been working on it. (Go to the “Research and Resources” area and poke around.) There’s much too much for me to summarize here, but to pluck out an example, the community of Crescent Valley (the area which had the dubious distinction of having some of the worst statistics of the priority neighbourhoods) has developed a number of community programs like a clothing bank, child and youth programming, and various food security initiatives. So it looks like things are happening, though (as always) too little too slowly.

Next week: Manitoba’s oddly-named but fairly successful “All Aboard” initiative.

* This report relies heavily on data from the 2006 census and thus will probably never be properly duplicated. In 2011 the mandatory long-form census, which gathered the data used for this report, was scrapped and replaced with the voluntary “National Household Survey”. As this is voluntary it is not a reliable data source.

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