TEAM APPROACH Laura Ryser says banding together at a regional level is key to making the most effective use of scarce resources
Rural poverty is often “hidden” and longer lasting than its urban counterpart, and many low-income residents don’t appreciate that higher education is their best hope of escaping their situation, says a researcher from the University of Northern British Columbia
“Unfortunately due to the small-town environment, people work really hard to hide their dire financial situations,” Laura Ryser told attendees at the recent Alberta Rural Development Network Creating Rural Connections conference.
In rural areas that are heavily dependent on resource industries, the unemployed often try to wait things out when there’s a slump in those sectors, she said.
“As a result, unemployment tends to last longer, as people tend to wait out economic downturns and hope for recovery,” said Ryser.
As part of her research, she conducted 22 interviews with low-income residents and government officials in communities across the Robson Valley, located southeast of Prince George. The main service centres in this region are McBride and Valemount, which serve a population of about 3,000 people. Because it’s a two-hour or longer drive to Prince George and Kamloops, “it shouldn’t be surprising that in smaller communities there are fewer opportunities for advancement,” Ryser said.
This includes access to post-secondary education, but what’s especially discouraging is that many don’t see how important education is to their future income prospects, she said.
“It can also be a challenge to get residents, especially youth, to see the value of education, which has been historically undervalued,” said Ryser. “People have typically been able to get higher-paying resource-sector jobs with lower education. Unfortunately this is no longer the reality, but this perception exacerbates poverty in smaller communities.”
The rising cost of gasoline combined with limited public transportation puts the rural poor further behind the eight ball, as does Internet access.
“If you’re living in a remote setting, you’re not going to have access to high-speed Internet,” she said. “Even if you have dial-up, the government web pages won’t load and you don’t have access to some of those supports.”
Communities are responding with “one-stop shops” that attempt to backfill decreasing government support. For example, Robson Valley Support Services provides literacy classes, employment training, family supports, and handivan services for seniors in the region. Organizations are also working together at a regional level to avoid service duplication and provide outreach supports to people in isolated locations.
“This helps protect the identity of people who are reaching out for support and it makes them feel more comfortable accessing those supports,” said Ryser. “This is really important because if they’re not accessing supports early on, they just spiral (down) faster.”
Rural regions can help alleviate poverty by using their resources wisely and being creative.
“There’s also a need to strengthen economic co-operation at a regional level,” said Ryser.
Opportunities and spaces for social interaction in a community are also important, because they help build social cohesion, which is crucial in alleviating poverty.
“Top-down programs and policies are also needed to support regional collaboration,” she said. “This should support regional strategies, networking and alliances.”