The issue is not poor children but family poverty
If we’re going to get serious, the wealthiest of us have to bend
The last few weeks have seen much hand wringing about the continuing high levels of child poverty in Canada. Various solutions are offered such as increasing the basic benefits provided to parents of low-income children, improving educational practice, as well as a hodgepodge of measures designed to make living in poverty more palatable (e.g., free dental care for poor children, removing recreation fees, etc.)
These seem to me to be half-measures all designed to somehow "help" children who find themselves living in poverty. To my mind these proposals are misguided at best and dangerous at worst. The problem of child poverty is primarily a problem of family poverty, which is itself a result of the unequal distribution of income and wealth amongst Canadians.
Not surprisingly, it is long been suggested that these imbalances of income and wealth are themselves a result of imbalances in power and influence. Poverty is not just a problem of those at the bottom having too little. It is also a problem of those at the top having too much. Not surprisingly, those at the top have the influence and power that allows them to gain an unjust share of the pie.
We should not be surprised that they have worked hard — and been successful — at shaping the public policies that not only sustain the status quo but have made the situation worse by increasing income and wealth inequalities, reducing taxes for the wealthy, and withdrawing the benefits and supports that sustain those Canadians most at risk of living in poverty.
Research carried out by UNICEF points out that those nations with the lowest child and family poverty rates are, not surprisingly, those nations with the smallest proportion of low-paid workers. Low-paid workers are much more common in nations where the labour sector is weak, government does little to manage the economy in the service of all, and public participation is less than the case in other countries. They are also the nations with a system of proportional representation that allows greater citizen input into the election process. It is not only the Nordic nations that do well in reducing child and family poverty. The Continental nations of Europe also do far better than we do in Canada.
This analysis suggests that the best means of reducing child and family poverty is to reduce the imbalances in power and influence that exist among Canadians. The best — and easiest way — to do this is to make it easier to organize workplaces, increase the progressivity of income taxes, and assure that all members of the population, regardless of their class status, have the benefits and supports necessary to avoid poverty.
The recent history of public policy in Canada has been to do the opposite. There have been sustained attacks on organized labour, taxes have been reduced on the wealthy, and the social safety net has been weakened.
The reason why child and family poverty continues to be so high in Canada is that these solutions are not considered by governing parties. Indeed, these solutions are rarely raised by parties in opposition.
If we are truly committed to reducing child and family poverty we have to commit ourselves to reducing existing power balances by making it easier to organize workplaces, manage the economy so that it serves all Canadians, not just those of influence and power and provide the benefits and supports necessary to avoid poverty. These solutions have been adapted in most wealthy developed countries, and not surprisingly, their child and family poverty rates are lower than is the case in Canada.
Reducing child poverty will not be done by proposing band-aid solutions that do little to address these issues. What is needed is a serious revamping of the manner in which a society works, giving those of less influence and power the ability to shape public policy to meet their needs.
For too long we have blamed the poor for their problems when it is more appropriate to blame the powerful and wealthy for the existence of child and family poverty. We should not be surprised when those responsible for child and family poverty greet these modest proposals with cries of outrage. Because in the end, reducing child and family poverty will involve reducing the power and influence — and perhaps even the wealth — of those at the top.
Dennis Raphael, PhD, is a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto. He is the author of Poverty in Canada: Implications for Health and Quality of Life, published by Canadian Scholars Press.