Child poverty – this is not as good as it gets

Special to Globe and Mail Update

Canada‘s child and family poverty rate is down to 11.7 per cent in the latest Statistics Canada report, released last week. So why aren’t anti-poverty activists breaking out the bubbly?

Because that rate is exactly what it was in 1989, when parliamentarians unanimously declared it unacceptable, vowing to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.

It is always welcome news when the child poverty rate turns downward, but it’s not time to celebrate something that was unacceptable a few years ago. In 1989, the Canadian economy had just begun to climb out of its deepest recession since the 1930s. Today, the economy is firing on all cylinders in most parts of the country, and it’s been that way for years. Why such willingness to write off the fortunes of almost 12 per cent of this generation of children in a country that’s enjoying such economic fortune? We don’t believe this as good as it gets.

The sobering reality is that in Canada more than three-quarters of a million children live in poverty. That’s about one in eight children. Some people call that a victory. We beg to differ.

Canada has a $1.3-trillion economy. It has doubled, in real terms, over the past 25 years, making it the ninth-largest in the world.

Unemployment is at a 30-year low. That means Canadians are working. In fact, they are working harder than ever. We are all contributing to Canada’s growing economy. Even the poorest among us are working more. Yet, one in every three low-income children has a parent working full-time all year, and it’s still not enough to pull them out of poverty. A sizzling economy and plentiful jobs aren’t enough to pull poverty rates down to those enjoyed in many countries with less robust economies.

In its latest report on income distribution, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that, although the economic pie is bigger and there is indisputably more affluence in the land, Canada’s poorest families are earning less than they did a generation ago.

In stark contrast, the richest 10 per cent of Canadian families are enjoying a cool (inflation-adjusted) 30-per-cent increase in their income compared to a generation ago.

The average earnings of the richest 10 per cent of families are now 82 times those of the poorest 10 per cent. A generation ago, they made 31 times more than the poorest.

The result is that Canada’s after-tax income gap between the richest and poorest 10 per cent of families raising children is at its highest level in 30 years. The gap is growing and we are leaving our poorest behind.

And those who are poor are experiencing a deeper level of poverty today than before. A typically “poor” two-parent family needs an additional $9,100 just to reach the poverty line.

Government support makes a difference. Programs such as unemployment insurance and social assistance, which have seen deep cuts, still prevent the freefall of many of our poorest families. The National Child Benefit makes a bigger difference to poor families than a decade ago.

Yet, simply stated, our governments are not doing enough.

If we, as a nation, refuse to tackle poverty during one of the most economically flush eras of the past century, when are we likely to take the challenge? During the next recession? There is a huge cohort of Canadians poised to retire in the coming decade. Are we really ready to write off every eighth child, permit them to develop into adulthood without adequate investments in their health, welfare and development? We will need every single one of these children to help support us in 15 to 20 years.

These children represent our future, the best of this country’s expectations for progress. There is no time to waste. It’s time for a cross-Canada comprehensive, long-term poverty reduction strategy.

Newfoundland and Quebec are showing it can be done provincially. These provinces are investing in family income support programs, training and education, child care, and affordable housing — the type of investments that other countries have found successful in reducing poverty rates. Canadians have told pollsters that these are precisely the measures they want governments to take to reduce poverty and growing income inequality.

Can we afford it? Yes. But we need political leadership to make it happen. Canada’s economy is chugging away, continuing to surpass expectations quarter after quarter. The federal government has committed to spend $35-billion in surplus funds over the next three years for other things, but not a dime is going to reduce poverty.

We didn’t accept child poverty as a sustainable option in 1989. We shouldn’t accept it now.

Laurel Rothman works at Family Service Association of Toronto, where she is co-ordinator of Campaign 2000. Armine Yalnizyan is a research fellow with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

3 comments

  • Statistics Canada has said repeatedly that low-income cut-off is NOT a measure of poverty – it’s a measure of income distribution.

    The two are quite different. In truth, Statistics Canada does not keep a statistic on poverty. That’s a real shame, because it is incredibly important. On the other hand, coming up with a true estimate of poverty is probably difficult, and certainly politically explosive.

    It’s important to differentiate between poverty and income distribution, and I don’t have much respect for those who muddle the two. I always suspect they do so for political reasons.

    I say that those who REALLY care about poverty should demand from the government that we first come up with accurate statistics, so that we begin to study the problem properly, and can sensibly hold the governement accountable.

  • It is truly disingenuous for Statscan to say that the LICO is not a poverty line then refuse to publish a poverty line. In fact, however, the LICO, the LIM (one-half the median income, which is used in international comparisons), and the Market Basket Measure developed by HRSDC find cut-offs for poverty or low income that are remarkable close together. The only poverty measure that deviates from the group is the Fraser Institute “thin gruel” measure developed Chris Sarlo.

    I have commented more on this here:
    http://progecon.wordpress.com/2006/11/14/more-truthiness-from-the-fraser-institute/

  • People who are poor certainly know they are.

    This country is not known for respecting or caring about their needs. People living in poverty in Canada do not have the same opportunities as other people do, to advance and improve their circumstances.

    People are poor when they cannot afford to properly own and maintain their own vehicles. There are many poor people that drive, but for example, do not carry insurance because they can’t afford it. People are poor because they cannot afford to purchase a nutritious food basket for their family’s needs. People are poor when their children cannot partake in pizza days, go on school trips, have to wear hand-me-downs, and cannot go to community recreational facilities that other children enjoy. People are poor when they don’t go on family vacations; I know many who have never been on any kind of vacation, and in my view, it is so hard on them when they hear others around them talk about their latest trip to Europe or out west or whatever … gee, it must be nice.

    I think we need to accept the fact that poverty is way too high in this country, and stop trying to eliminate it by statistical re-evaluation.

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