It was supposed to be Ed Broadbent's swan song, and his legacy to Canadian families. On Nov. 24,1989, in his final resolution in the House of Commons, the retiring leader of the federal New Democratic Party proposed to eliminate child poverty by 2000. Broadbent called the plight of poor children in Canada “a national shame, a national horror,” adding: “Our obligation is to ensure that every kid in this country has full opportunity to become all he or she can become.” The resolution passed unanimously.
Flip ahead a year, when prime minister
Brian Mulroney co-chaired the United Nations World Summit for Children in New York. The high point of the event was the adoption of the Declaration on the Survival, Protection and Development of Children. World leaders, including Mulroney, promised that in good economic times or bad, children’s interests would come first. Delegates made firm commitments to reduce malnutrition, expand early-childhood development and education programs, and improve the living conditions of poor kids by, again, 2000.
So what happened?
Here we are in 2001, on the eve of a UN Special Session on Children beginning on
Sept. 19, and child poverty in Canada is worse, not better. All levels of government in Canada have failed to provide for their most helpless constituents. More than a million children in Canada—an increase of about 28 per cent since 1989—now live in households with incomes below what Statistics Canada calls the low-income cutoff. Facing long waiting lists for subsidized housing, more families with young kids are ending up homeless. The number of people using food banks is up 92 per cent over the past decade, and studies suggest about 40 per cent of users are under the age of 18.
It’s not just that governments failed to fulfil their noble goals. They did it knowingly.
According to a 67-page report that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien will be taking to the UN session in New York, Canada is a First World country struggling with inequality, and children of single parents and those of aboriginal descent have been hit the hardest. Good intentions were derailed by the early 1990s recession and deficit-reduction mania, and funding for social programs was not restored once the deficits were reined in. Meagre incomes were frozen or even reduced, widening an already gaping divide between rich and poor. Bridging that gap, says Senator Landon Pearson, Chrétiens personal representative to the UN session, is “a concern to our delegation. It doesn’t seem to be something that worries some of our provincial leaders,” she adds. “If we hadn’t had the right-wing pressure accusing Liberals of spending, there might have been more programs in place.”
There ought to be. For many families, the grip of poverty seems impossible to break. The federal report calculates that it now takes 75.4 weeks of work—the equivalent of 1 xh full-time jobs at an average wage—to cover basic expenses for the Canadian family each year. That’s a dispiriting reality for single parents, of whom there were nearly 1.3 million in 2000 compared with 950,000 in 1991. According to Statistics Canada, more than a million of these families were headed by women, and their average annual household earnings were the lowest of any family type— $25,000 after taxes. “One always wants a better record,” Pearson concedes. “If we hadn’t dealt with the deficit, we would have had more capacity to respond.”
The Canadian report to the UN does cite several promising initiatives. In the early
1990s, Chrétiens Liberals launched the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program and the Community Action Program for Children for kids up to six years of age. They provide such things as food, counselling and education for at-risk families, including those in isolated communities and in situations of abuse. The Liberals also established Aboriginal Head Start to improve health, education and nutrition for native kids on and off reserves. In 1998, a new child tax benefit was put in place, which, by 2004, will give back to Canadas lowest-income families up to $2,500 a child. And last year, the federal government agreed to transfer $2.2 billion over five years to the provinces for programs such as early-childhood development. Among other things, the funds are to be used to strengthen child care, a breaking point for working families.
All good, say some child-poverty experts, but not nearly enough. “What we need is an ongoing commitment,” says Marvyn Novick, a professor of social work at Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnic University. “Not ‘Here is your money for three years, five years.’ ” Novick points out that the objectives of two of the programs are compromised anyway because some provinces are unwilling to play their part. When a family on social assistance in all of the provinces except Manitoba, New Brunswick and Newfoundland receives its child tax benefit, those provinces claw back that amount from the welfare cheque. And Ontario refuses to implement a child-care system with its portion of Ottawa’s early-childhood development funds. “We’ve let conservative governments led by Ontario and Alberta sabotage the national agenda,” concludes Novick.
There’s support for that hardline approach beyond a few provincial capitals. Many critics claim efforts to help poor kids by boosting their parents’ income too often fail because the cash can be spent on non-essentials. And some conservatives have a different measure for what constitutes poverty. Unlike some other countries, Canada has no official “poverty line,” so most researchers rely on Statistics Canada’s LICO measurements, which are based on a complicated formula using family expenditure and income surveys.
But Christopher Sarlo, a professor of economics at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., whose work has been published by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, challenges the rationale behind using the LICO. Sarlo has created a series of poverty lines by calculating how much money a household requires for basic necessities. By Sarlo’s reckoning, households that don’t have these funds are considered poor. For instance, a single person in Halifax is living in poverty if he or she earns less than $8,946 a year; a family of four in Calgary, $18,299. Using these rates, Sarlo places the prevalence of child poverty at closer to 10 per cent, not the frequently quoted 17 per cent that’s based on Statistics Canada figures. “I’m not saying there is no problem,” says Sarlo. “But if we want to measure poverty properly we need to have better information, including the numbers of people who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs.”
A 1999 study, however, suggests Sarlo’s point is moot. In the report, Ottawa’s Canadian Council on Social Development concluded that children in families whose incomes are below the Statistics
EDWARD BROADBENT, 1989
For too long we have ignored the appalling poverty in the midst of affluence.
Let us affirm that by the beginning of the 21st century, child poverty will be a relic of the past.
BRIAN MULRONEY, 1990
Today may represent the beginning of a change in the lives of the world’s children. Today, in this hall, the children may have found the voices and the friends they have long been seeking.
JEAN CHRÉTIEN, 2001
It took a generation to reduce poverty among seniors. We cannot be complacent. We must make similar progress for children. We must ensure that children are a national priority.
Canada cutoff suffer poorer health, and more behavioural problems and worse grades in school than children from higher-income families. “The research isn’t saying that all rich kids will be immune to these outcomes,” says Paul Roberts, a research associate with the council and co-author of the report. “What it does say is that children with lower incomes are at greater risk.” Canada isn’t the only First World country grappling with the issue. A 2000 report, Child Poverty in Rich Nations, published by the UN’s Children’s Fund, concluded that 47 million children in 23 of the wealthiest countries live in poverty. In Canada, there are a number of explanations for this, says economist Armine Yalnizyan: corporate downsizing, the growth of part-time and contract employment, and the decline of stable positions. The situation has been exacerbated, she adds, by cuts to employment insurance, welfare and socialhousing programs that coincided with increases in private housing prices. “In the great economic boom of the 1960s, we had public investments, people’s wages increased and we expanded income-support programs,” she says. “We have just gone through the biggest economic boom in 30 years, but we did the complete opposite.”
That’s evident in the UN Children’s Fund report. Canada ranked near the bottom among developed nations in the percentage of public dollars spent on social programs, and in the percentage of households with single and/or unemployed parents. The report calculated Canada’s child-poverty rate at 15.3 per cent—more than 10 percentage points higher than Sweden, Norway and Finland. René De Grâce, president and CEO of UNICEF Canada, says Canada has the equivalent resources of the Northern European countries, but doesn’t use them as well. “It’s our hope,” De Grâce says, “that all nations will be reminded that children are our best investment for human development.” A lofty goal, and one, it is hoped, Canadian politicians act on when they return home.
Should governments increase spending to fight child poverty even if it means abandoning a balanced budget?
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