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Edmonton Sun

By Dave Lazzarino, Edmonton Sun
First posted: Wednesday, January 14, 2015 02:29 PM MST

Poverty trends in Edmonton have improved in recent years, but worries are surfacing that the fallout from sinking oil prices will undo those gains.

"The first thing that comes to my mind is jobs, the loss of jobs, but also issues around rents going up and the ability for people to find affordable housing when they've lost their job," said Susan Morrissey, executive director of the Edmonton Social Planning Council (SPC), following the release of a report profiling poverty in Edmonton.

Among other statistics, the profile shows one in eight residents are living in poverty.

Breaking the totals down, one in five children experience poverty and for children with aboriginal background, the numbers are even more stark, with almost 44 per cent of kids under six living in low-income homes.

According to John Kolkman, research co-ordinator for the SPC, the trend has been improving in recent years.

"There's been a slow reduction in the poverty rate since 2000 through 2012," Kolkman said. "We've also had a really strong economy."

Kolkman explained the recent numbers only go to 2012, meaning recent events could change that trend for the worse.

"The downturn in oil prices is probably going to have both negative and positive effects," he said.

That's what worries Morrissey.

"We're concerned there's going to be cuts to programs," she said.

She said if social agencies start having to make cuts those cuts will be felt immediately by people on the cusp of poverty and the social cost will skyrocket.

"It's a lot easier and a lot less costly to be able to deal with them before they get there."

Mayor Don Iveson feels more drastic change needs to happen at the federal and provincial levels in order to turn the tables for the city's poor, calling the numbers "unacceptable."

"A society as wealthy as ours, regardless of oil prices, can include more people and ultimately all people," Iveson said.

In his speech, he pointed to a personal belief that the tax system has to be changed. When asked to expand on that, he agreed a general sales tax is likely to hurt all people, poor and wealthy alike.

"It seems to me that when we moved to the flat tax we became more regressive," he said. "I know many high-income people who would be prepared to pay a little bit more by going back to a progressive income tax."

He said a mix of solutions is needed to solve the issue of income inequality.

As for corporate tax, he said it could potentially keep companies from investing in the city, pointing instead to a progressive income tax and and a fuel tax to support provincial coffers.

Recommendations from the city's task force on poverty elimination are expected to be published in the fall.

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