Promise to eliminate child poverty in Canada ringing increasingly hollow

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Promise to eliminate child poverty in Canada ringing increasingly hollow

One in seven Canadian children live in relative poverty, giving a hollow ring to lofty promises Ottawa made almost 25 years ago to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000.

This week saw the release of national and provincial report cards showing governments seem to have made very little impact on child poverty, and in some cases things have gotten worse.

In British Columbia, for instance, more than 18 per cent of children live below the federal low-income cutoff, according to First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. That's almost one in five kids, the worst percentage in Canada.

“This is higher than any other province and more than five percentage points higher than the Canadian average,” First Call says in its Child Poverty Report Card, based on 2011 Statistics Canada data.

And lest you think all these kids are living in welfare households, the report revealed almost a third of them are in families where at least one parent has a full-time job, the Globe and Mail noted.

Child poverty actually rose by four per cent from 2010 to 2011, First Call B.C. co-ordinator Adrienne Montani told the Globe.

“There is a lack of focus [on this problem] from government,” she said. “Their policy of leaving it to market forces just isn’t working.”

[ Related: B.C. has Canada's highest child poverty rate: report ]

The B.C. report came as Campaign 2000, a coalition of more than 120 anti-poverty groups, released its national report card and reports for some individual provinces.

Almost a million Canadian children live below Statistics Canada's low-income measure, defined as income below 50 per cent of the median household after-tax income, the Toronto Star said. In 2011, that was $28,185 for a single parent with one child.

Some 967,000 children fell into the poverty hole, a slight improvement from last year's report that put the total at 979,000. By comparison in 1989, the year the promise to end child-poverty was made in Parliament, there were were 912,000 children living in poverty, the Star said. The child-poverty rate that year was 13.7 per cent.

More than a third of children living in poverty – 371,000 – live in Ontario. But Ontario's rate of 13.8 per cent is below the 14.3 per cent national average and has been declining thanks to improvements to the minimum wage and increases in the provincial child benefit, the Star said.

Four in 10 of Canada's aboriginal children live in poverty, Campaign 2000 said.

The group wants Ottawa to develop the long-promised national plan to eliminate poverty, including affordable housing and a national child-care system, the Star reported. It also wants child benefits for low-income families increased to $5,400 from $3,654 annually, along with income tax changes.

Campaign 2000 found Canada ranked 24th out of 35 rich countries in terms of child poverty based on 2009 stats.

Alberta does comparatively well, with just over 10 per cent of children living below the low-income measurement, according to its report card. But that's more than the eight per cent figure of the previous year.

"A stronger economy alone will not eliminate child poverty," the Alberta report said. "Additional social investments such as enhanced child tax benefits and making work pay are also required."

[ Related: Manitoba aboriginal child poverty rate over 60 per cent ]

Nova Scotia had the fifth-highest provincial child-poverty rate, 17.3 per cent, while New Brunswick didn't provide an estimate, citing large holes in the statistical data because the switch from a mandatory long-form census to a voluntary National Household Survey. Campaign 2000 did not post reports for other provinces.

Back in B.C., Stephanie Cadieux, the province's minister of children and family development, told the Globe the government believes child poverty can be reduced by “growing the economy, creating jobs and providing supports where they are most needed.”

She rejected Montani's claim the approach isn't working.

“B.C.’s single-digit unemployment rates across every region in the province are a positive sign that we are on track for continued economic growth," she told the Globe via email.

"That growth allows government to continue providing targeted supports to low-income families.”