The Maclean's Excerpt

When kids go hungry

Can we afford not to spend the $9 billion a year needed to overcome child poverty?

Mel Hurtig November 15 1999
The Maclean's Excerpt

When kids go hungry

Can we afford not to spend the $9 billion a year needed to overcome child poverty?

Mel Hurtig November 15 1999

When kids go hungry

The Maclean's Excerpt

Can we afford not to spend the $9 billion a year needed to overcome child poverty?

Mel Hurtig, the Edmonton-based publisher, author and unrepentant nationalist, has been an iconoclastic force on the Canadian scene for three decades. Researching his new book, Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids, Hurtig, 67, was shocked by the pervasiveness of poverty, especially among children, in one of the world’s richest countries. An excerpt:

Mel Hurtig

One of my first interviews was with the principal of an inner-city school in Edmonton. It was an old three-storey brick building with creaky linoleum floors and small classrooms. We sat talking in her tiny second-floor office. Suddenly, she got up from her desk and moved to the window. She motioned for me to join her. Down below, I could just barely see a little girl hiding under the stairs. Just then the noon bell went off. The little girl leapt to her feet, ran along the side of the building, disappeared into a door, quickly reappeared and motioned across the schoolyard. Immediately, two

Reprinted with permission from Pay the Rent or Feed the Kids, copyright Mel Hurtig, published by McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto.

small children, a boy and a girl, maybe five and four years of age, came running across the yard. All three vanished into the school.

The principal told me that the older girl, who was 7, was sneaking her younger brother and sister into the school’s hot-lunch program. She did this several times near the end of each month. One of the new teachers noticed what was happening and, in a nonconfrontational way, questioned the girl, who began to cry with shaking shoulders, deep sobs and tears rolling down her face. There was no father in the family. Their mother had been sick in bed for months. They always ran out of food before the end of the month. The utility bill had to be paid; if it wasn’t, child welfare would take the kids away from their mother. There was nothing in the house to eat.

When I began the research for this book, I knew there were large numbers of children living in poverty across our country. But I had no idea just how terrible and widespread the suffering is, how very deep the poverty is in so many homes and communities, how hundreds of thousands of Canadian children are being damaged for life.

When many poor children arrive at the schoolhouse door in kindergarten or Grade 1, they are

Our goal should be to see that every poor child is treated as we would treat our own children

often not ready to learn. It isn’t unusual that they don’t know letters or colours. Lacking the early development opportunities found in most Canadian homes, the brains of these children may simply not have developed.

From a hundred different sources we know that investment in early childhood development is the best possible investment we can make. We know it will lead to a better, happier, healthier, more productive society and country. We know that child poverty often produces a wide range of anti-social behaviour and results in adults who can’t compete in society or in the job market.

There is no reason why Canada should not become the number 1 country in the world in its care and respect for children. The resources can be mobilized; all that is lacking is the political will and leadership.

Where do we begin? Let’s start by reminding Prime Minister Jean Chretien of two resolutions passed at the 1998 national Liberal party convention. The first resolution was sponsored by the national Liberal caucus. It began, “Whereas it is estimated that three million children in Canada arrive at school hungry,” and ended with, “Be it resolved that the Liberal Party of Canada urges the federal government to take action to establish a national child nutrition program.” The

National Women’s Liberal Commission urged the government “to ensure initiatives” that would lead to “the establishment of adequate child care facilities across Canada.”

As our first priority, we should establish Canadian child care community centres across the country. In announcing the centres, the government should proclaim that it will no longer tolerate a situation where so many Canadian children are forced to go hungry. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks will be provided without charge to children in need. No child will be turned away. The centres, where possible, will seek the cooperation of hospitals in preparing nutritious food (in much the same way that Edmonton’s school lunch program works closely with a local hospital).

Each centre will have a full-time nurse and receive regular visits from a pediatrician. When required, children will be referred to medical specialists or to an optometrist, speech pathologist or dentist. Transportation will be provided, without charge, as will all other services. When the doctor prescribes drugs for the children, the centres will obtain these drugs and provide them to the parents without charge.

The principal at the school in Winnipeg told me that just before Christmas

a businessman brought in six pairs of warm boots for kids who might need them. This was great, but of the 240 kids in the east-end school, about 150 probably needed boots badly. How do you select which students get the six pairs? The teachers finally settled on a system of trying to figure out sizes by age, and then holding a draw. A little dark-haired, round-eyed aboriginal girl of 7 won a pair. Her face lit up, her smile was heartwarming. She had been coming to school in old, flimsy running shoes, even in -30° C weather, through deep snowdrifts. But a week later, one of the teachers reported a problem to the principal. The little girl just wouldn’t take the boots off, even in gym class. Several teachers had tried, but without success. Finally, the principal took her aside, privately. Why wouldn’t she take her boots off? Tears appeared in her eyes. After some hesitation, she whispered that she didn’t have any socks.

In several provinces, reductions in welfare benefits have been disastrous. In constant 1996 dollars, an Ontario couple with two children saw their welfare assistance drop from $20,540 in 1992 to $15,428 in 1996. In Alberta, a couple with two children saw their assistance drop from $16,622 in 1992 to $14,622 in 1996.

In Ontario, one of the wealthiest provinces in Canada, the 116-per-cent increase in the rate of child poverty since 1989 has been the highest in the country. Approximately one in 10 children in Ontario were poor in 1989. By 1996, it was one in five. The number of youths and families using hostels and shelters in the province doubled between 1986 and 1996. Yet, while there are more homeless people and poor children in Ontario than ever before, the Harris government dumped more than 370,000 people from its welfare rolls.

Where can we find the $9 billion a year that will be needed to pay for policies to combat child poverty nationwide?

To begin with, we need a federal gov-

Across Canada, reductions in welfare benefits have had disastrous results

ernment that’s committed to finally doing something about poverty, to spelling out clear, determined national objectives and timetables to alleviate, reduce and finally eliminate most poverty, a government that values charity, but understands that charity only brushes the surface of the deep wound in our society. And we need a government that understands that the very concept of food banks should be anathema in a civilized country.

Here’s what needs to be done. The federal government should appoint a fiveperson commission and give it six months to recommend tax and other policy changes that will, as fairly as possible, produce $9 billion in additional annual revenue that can be used to fight poverty. (The corporate elite and the business press will of course scream blue murder.)

Anticipated economic growth can probably provide much of the answer without even changing the tax system. Recent forecasts suggest federal government surpluses in the $5-billion to $ 10billion range. Ottawa economist Mike McCracken of Informetrica is forecasting a huge federal surplus of at least $15 billion next year and even greater surpluses in the following years. Even if he proves to be too optimistic, much of the money needed to help the poor should come without tax increases. But some important tax changes are in order and some of them are long overdue.

For example, the government should remove the present tax and expenditure concessions to the affluent. In recent times, these have achieved a measure of recognition under the cognomen of corporate welfare. Included here are diverse business subsidies and tax breaks.

Are corporations paying their fair share of taxes? In the 1990s, corporate taxation in Canada as a percentage of gross domestic product has been well below the average levels of the previous four decades.

But from everything I have learned about the subject over the years, the answer is that many (but not all) Canadian corporations pay a reasonable corporate tax, while foreign corporations operating in Canada are escaping billions of dollars in taxes that should be paid in Canada every year.

Next, shouldn’t we make the income tax system much more progressive? Is it really fair that someone earning $62,000 a year pays the same basic tax rate as someone earning $6.2 million? Shouldn’t we re-examine the tax brackets to make them far more progressive and fairer?

What about inheritance taxes? Among major developed nations, only Canada, Australia and New Zealand don’t have them. Should we examine inheritance taxes on large estates? Why not allow reasonable basic exemptions so that average families are not penalized, but then apply a reasonable tax on the balance?

The tax commission would look not only at how to raise additional revenue, but also how it might cut taxes for Canadians, especially for low-income families and individuals. Why not index the child tax benefit to inflation so its value doesn’t erode? Why not raise the basic exemption for those with low incomes even further and index it as well? Ottawa brags about removing hundreds of thousands of lowincome Canadians from the tax rolls through 1998 and 1999 increased exemptions, but without indexation some 1.4 million Canadians were pushed back onto those rolls in the past 10 years.

On the other hand, do we really need to give high-income families big tax credits or tax deductions associated with child care costs?

I walked with the single mother around the sea wall in Vancouver for almost two hours. She had moved to the West Coast eight years ago hoping for a better life. It didn’t turn out that way; now she has two young children and she has AIDS. She says poverty is such a shame; it’s so destructive. There’s so much success on television. For the kids, the mirror image of society is a buffet: designer clothes, nice shoes, wonderful vacations. Inevitably, you blame your-

She was ashamed to find herself fighting with her daughter over a slice of bread

self, it’s your own fault. You’re always trying to find ways to hide your poverty.

She says she tries to pay the bills at the beginning of the month; the cheque from Ottawa comes around the 20th of the month. She says: “You want to know how hard it is? I’ll tell you. I was sick in bed. My daughter comes home from school and makes herself a piece of toast. When I got out of bed and saw what she had done I blew up. That toast was supposed to be lunch for the next day! I just blew up with my daughter over a slice of bread for God’s sake! I never, never ever thought I would have to raise my kids in poverty. I am so ashamed.”

Through inept, uncaring, hypocritical government, we have badly failed our own people. Through selfishness, greed, indifference and cruelty, we have forced millions of men, women and children to struggle through lives of misery, despair and suffering.

Instead of comprehensive political, social and economic solutions to the decades of excessive poverty in our country, we have offered pious, self-righteous rhetoric and Band-Aid, patchwork, inconsequential and totally inadequate cosmetic improvisations.

In the past, over and over and over again, year after year, decade after decade, we’ve been told that the poor will have to wait until the government’s financial situation has improved. Now the federal government is expecting large surpluses. How much longer will the poor have to wait?

On May 10, 1999, I spoke to the students at three inner-city schools in Edmonton. There were kids of every size, colour and religion. In a Grade 1 class, I met two dozen beautiful poor children, most from single-parent families, some from group or foster homes. I met a won-

derful seven-year-old immigrant boy who was in an hour-long one-on-one remedial session with a teacher. The boy beamed as he showed me how he was learning to read. Later, the principal told me the funds for this program expire this year and will not be renewed. I met a pretty, sad-faced 14-yearold girl with dark circles under her eyes. She was being abused at home, the principal told me. The intervention-program funds had been cut back. She wasn’t getting the help she needed. A bright-eyed aboriginal girl came up to me after my talk and asked me how she could go to university when it looked like there wouldn’t be enough money in the family to allow her to continue on to high school. Everywhere I turned I saw kids you wanted to hug, to sit down and talk with. And I saw overloaded, heroic teachers just barely able to cope with the problems they faced every day: poor kids in trouble, poor junior-high kids who were already giving up, poor kids who desperately needed help. All the teachers stressed the same thing: the government cutbacks were hurting poor children badly. “It’s a tragedy,” they said.

Don’t accept the relentless right-wing selling job that so often appears in our daily press. There are much better, much fairer, much more egalitarian, practical, realistic ways of running a country. And there are benevolent and beneficial ways of reducing poverty to produce a more civil, more just society.

Our goal should be clear. Let’s ensure that we deal with the prevention of poverty in Canada, not simply engage in attempts to alleviate poverty after it is solidly entrenched in concrete in our society. To achieve this goal, many more men and women must become direcdy involved in politics. If even one-fifth of the poor in Canada became direcdy involved in the political life of our country, they could change the future. If even five per cent of adult Canadians were to become active in federal politics, they could completely dominate the political power structure of our country.

Our first goal should be to see that every poor child in Canada is treated as we would treat our very own children.

Nothing less will do. El