Jeff Heuchert email@example.com
At least one in 10 residents across Huron and Perth counties lives in poverty, struggling to pay for rising food and shelter costs, according to a new quality of life report released last week.
The document, researched and prepared by the United Way's Social Research and Planning Council, found that there is a greater percentage of low- to moderate-income households earning between $20,000 and $60,000 annually.
United Way executive director, Ryan Erb, notes that despite an unemployment rate that is consistently below the provincial average, many of the top occupations in the region are categorized as low skill level and requiring minimal education and training.
"And the wages typically associated with those jobs are low," he adds, noting the region also has a higher percentage of part-time labour compared to the rest of the province.
No surprisingly, the two counties reported a high number of young adults leaving the area for employment and/or post-secondary school; yet, interestingly, at the same time the region experienced a net gain in residents during their peak earning years (45-64 years old).
This is the third such report assembled by the Social Research and Planning Council, a division of the United Way Perth-Huron that is committed to the collection, analysis and distribution of information relating to local social trends and issues. It defines quality of life terms of happiness and health, rather than wealth, using statistical measures tied to common indicators like education, work and health, while also exploring issues like how safe is the community, how engaged are residents, and how people spend their time.
Ken Clarke, chair of the council's quality of life subcommittee, notes many other communities have conducted similar reports using the same statistical measures.
"The more that this information is available we'll be able to compare our community to communities in other parts of the country," he adds.
The quality of life report highlights several challenges. The population is aging, and seniors now make up a higher percentage of the populace than children. Voter turnout rates are on the decline, and quality of local surface water and forested areas are below provincial averages. Physical activity rates are starting to climb, but over half of the population indicated being either obese or overweight.
Still, the report isn't all dour.
"One of the things this report does is it tells us that people are pretty happy about living here," Erb notes.
For instance, in 2011/12, three-quarters of the population reported a strong sense of belonging, higher than the provincial average, and over 90 per cent of people indicated they are satisfied or very satisfied with life in general.
Erb says another strong indicator is volunteerism, which he suggests is greater in rural areas compared to larger, urban centres. Across Perth and Huron, he adds, volunteers contribute more than five million hours per year, roughly equal to 2,500 full-time jobs.
Huron and Perth are also very safe, according to the report's findings. Since 2009, the crime severity index rates have decreased by 35 per cent in Stratford, and, according to police chief John Bates, those numbers are reflective of what police are seeing across the counties.
Bates, who is also a United Way campaign co-chair this year, says the substantial drop in non-violent crimes over the last five years speaks to "the livability and vitality of the community."
He adds that the report, which is available online and at the United Way office, is a good resource for the whole community.
"All kinds of different organizations across both counties can use this information to elevate the quality of life."
The next project for the Social Research and Planning Council will be to calculate a living wage for people in Perth and Huron. It is a joint effort with the County of Perth and a consultant has already been hired to assist.
Erb says employers will be encouraged to participate in the dialogue so everyone understands the challenges they face in paying a fair wage.
"It's not always easy for them to say I want to do that and do it tomorrow. We recognize that, but we want to raise the conversation, make people aware."