Social Justice: Poverty in Nanaimo

“If the poor weren’t so conveniently invisible, maybe we’d come to our moral senses and devise a national strategy for eliminating poverty.” Toronto Star, 2007.

Imagine yourself in a state of constant dread. That’s poverty.

Poverty means hunger, inadequate nutrition, substandard and unsafe housing, or no housing at all. Poverty means always trying to find a way to provide adequate food and safe shelter for you or your family and sometimes sacrificing one or the other.

Research shows that poverty is a fundamental determinant of both physical and mental health, closely linked to low school achievement, lower literacy rates and one of the strongest predictors of being involved with the criminal justice system. Poverty results in higher public health care and criminal justice costs. BC consistently has one of the highest poverty rates in Canada and has had the highest Child Poverty rates since 2001.

Governments commonly measure poverty by Low Income Cut Offs, an income threshold below which a family will likely devote a larger share of its income on the necessities of food, shelter and clothing than the average family, and spending more than 30% of Income towards the cost of housing.

Nanaimo currently ranks 11th worst of 92 health areas for Economic Hardship in BC. Using established poverty measures, almost half the population of Nanaimo would be living below the poverty line. Those on income assistance and senior citizens with access only to government pensions, live thousands of dollars below the poverty line and commonly pay more than 50% of their income towards the cost of housing.

  • Nanaimo ranks 15th — more than twice the provincial average — for those on Income Assistance and E.I.
  • Approximately 15% of the population of Nanaimo, including 1 in 4 children, are receiving some form of income assistance.
  • Nanaimo ranks 11th highest for youth aged 19 to 24 on income assistance.
  • 25% of those on I. A. are single parent families.
  • If a family of four living on income assistance were to provide a healthy diet, as outlined by the Dieticians of Canada, their costs including housing would result in a negative balance.
  • Of regions in BC with population centers the size of Nanaimo or larger, we have the dubious distinction of ranking number one for youth at risk.
  • 40% of the workforce in the Nanaimo region has only part time jobs.
  • 48% of tenants and 21% of homeowners pay more than 30% of their income on housing costs.

As subsets of the general population, immigrants and First Nations experience far higher levels of poverty. In the case of First Nations, 50% are unemployed and youth have a five to eight times higher rate of suicide.

Nanaimo Food/Meal Distribution:

  • Nanaimo 7-10 Club: serves approx. 80,000 meals per year, breakfast and bag lunches.
  • Loaves & Fishes Food Bank, seven distribution centres: approx. 45,000 hampers per year, a quarter to families.
  • Salvation Army: approx. 40,000 low cost, $1.00 lunch $2.00 dinner, meals to the public per year.
  • St. Andrew’s Church (Departure Bay): weekly lunch serving between 80 and 100 youth as well as 40 to 50 adults.
  • On Eagle’s Wing: weekly dinner serves approx. 100 people.
  • St. Paul’s Church: monthly lunch serves approx 80 people.
  • Foodshare Society: sponsors 50 families per month for good food box. Summer Lunch Munch program provides approx. 4,000 meals per month during the summer.
  • School District 68: 40 schools provide food i.e. healthy snack, with six having a formal meal program.

Current practices of attempting to alleviate poverty can actually trap people in poverty. BC needs to develop a poverty reduction plan; the costs of not doing so far exceed the costs of poverty reduction.

If the health care costs of the poorest 20% of British Columbians were reduced by raising their incomes, it would save BC’s public health care system $1.2 billion per year.

The estimated cost of a comprehensive poverty reduction plan in BC, per year would be $3 to $4 billion. In contrast, the current cost of maintaining the status quo is a staggering $8.1 to $9.2 billion a year.

A commitment to poverty reduction means taking action to:

  • End homelessness, and make sure all British Columbians have access to safe, affordable housing;
  • Make sure no one in BC goes hungry;
  • Improve pay and working conditions for people in low-wage jobs;
  • Index minimum wage;
  • Provide access to high quality, public child care;
  • Make training and education more accessible to low-income earners;
  • Create truly accessible child care.

“The enemy is not poverty, sickness and disease. The enemy is a set of institutions and interests that are advantaged by clienthood, that need dependency, masked by service. We are in a struggle against clienthood. We must reallocate the power, authority, and legitimacy that have been stolen by the great institutions of society. We must commit ourselves to the reallocation of power to the people we serve so that we no longer will need to serve.” – McKnight, J., The Careless Society: Community and Its’ Counterfeits [1995].

Sadly, an industry around poverty has developed that does not necessarily put the needs of the people first but that of the agency.  It is time for that to change; time to eliminate poverty pimping and hence eliminate poverty itself.

For an excellent resource, visit

Gord Fuller is an advocate for social change.