In 2000, Saskatchewan’s provincial government announced plans for reforms to Social Services’ Income Security programs. Many anti-poverty groups and concerned citizens worried that such changes would be made without input from those who would be most affected. A coalition of interested groups quickly organized under the name of the Saskatoon Anti-Poverty Coalition (APC) to lobby the government regarding these reforms. The question that arose, however, was what position APC would take in any consultations. To answer that, APC and the Department of Social Services created and funded the Roots of Poverty Project (RPP), a series of roundtables, workshops, community outreach events, and forums to stimulate dialogue and generate community activism amongst those who stand most to gain or lose from any poverty-related program. One of the project organizers, Paula Grosso, details the experiences in Uprooting Poverty and Planting Seeds For Social Change: The Roots of Poverty Project.
RPP’s guiding principle was one of community empowerment—helping the community to develop its capacity to critically analyze problems, developing local leadership, building organizational structures and resources, and establishing community control and ownership. This required fostering certain elements, such as trust, social inclusion / participatory democracy, a sense of community, and community connectedness. More concretely, RPP established six goals derived from the guiding principle: improving government-community communication; building community’s policy recommendation skills; redesigning social policy to include community input; alleviating low-income citizens’ fears of participation; developing leadership, facilitation, and organization skills in community members; and recommending specific policies for reducing the incidence and depth of poverty, including accessing quality jobs and housing.
Several themes and beliefs emerged during discussions regarding poverty’s root causes. Many believed that while individual choices were important for escaping from poverty, there were strong social forces working against that escape the social and economic structure of Canadian society is the fundamental cause of poverty through unequal wealth distribution, discrimination, and social exclusion. Any poverty reduction strategy must address the causes of marginalization and discrimination. Other components of poverty reduction strategies include: safe, stable, and affordable housing; access to high quality food; attention to physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health; affordable and readily available childcare; more respectful relationships between Social Services and citizens; community and social inclusion; greater accessibility to educational opportunities; and harnessing community diversity.
In a follow-up round of focus groups to evaluate RPP’s efforts, most participants were enthusiastic about the progress made, believing that considerable capacity had been built and momentum established. While many were disappointed that there was only minor governmental presence at the discussions and that bridges with government were not as well developed as hoped, most believed that a stronger sense of community had been created, community members had developed valuable organizational and analytical skills, and significant first steps had been taken. The goal is to carry that momentum forward and use those skills to effect meaningful changes in reducing poverty.