Teachers, district push for poverty strategy

Nanaimo teachers and the school board are teaming up to advocate for a provincewide strategy to reduce child poverty.

Justin Green, president of the Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association, talked to trustees at Wednesday’s board meeting about the link between childhood poverty and mental illness and the decreased number of elementary school counsellors available to help address this due to provincial underfunding of school districts.

In response to Green’s presentation, trustees passed a motion to submit a joint letter with the NDTA and the district support workers union that urges the province to establish a poverty reduction initiative.

“There are such initiatives in other provinces,” said Jamie Brennan, school board chairman. “We want things to change for the better for our kids.”

Poverty doesn’t create mental illness, but people living in poverty cannot access the same resources that those with higher incomes can, Green said.

If mental illness remains untreated, it means a higher likelihood of dropping out of school, less likelihood of getting a well-paid job, which perpetuates the cycle of poverty and struggles with mental illness, he said.

One of the ways the education system helps is through elementary school counsellors.

But Green said the district has lost almost 50 per cent of its elementary counsellors since 2001, with a corresponding drop in elementary students of about 12.2 per cent during that time.

“Elementary counsellors can play a significant role in helping children with mental illness,” said Green. “But they’re in a very difficult position to provide all those services with little time and so many needs. I think they’re overburdened. We’ve just limited another access point for students.”

Green blames the cuts on provincial underfunding for school districts. He recently delivered a presentation to the provincial standing committee on finance calling on the province to increase funding to bring learning specialist teacher rates back to 2001 levels.

“The counselling services are, in my mind, the biggest hit,” he said.

The school board and union’s advocacy is appreciated by Adrienne Montani, provincial coordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, which prepares an annual child poverty report card with the help of the Social Planning and Research Council of B.C.

This year’s report card, released last week, shows B.C.’s child poverty rate dropped to 14.3 per cent in 2010, down from 16.4 per cent in 2009, but still higher than the national average and the worst rate of any province except Manitoba.

The report card makes 15 public policy recommendations that would help reduce the child poverty rate, including increasing and indexing the minimum wage, welfare rates and child-tax benefits; enhance employment insurance benefits and eligibility; universal access to high-quality, affordable child care; and improving the affordability of post-secondary education.

With one in seven B.C. children living in poverty, Montani said it is helpful to see local governments adding their voice to the call for the province to deal with the issue.

Last month, the board also gave its support to a plan that calls for a universal child care plan available to parents for $10 per day.

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