Op-Ed: Child Poverty in Canada: The time to act is now

November 2, 1999

(A submission by David Ross to the Op-ed Page of the Saint John Telegraph-Journal)

This month marks the 10th anniversary of the unanimous all-party resolution in the House of Commons to end child poverty by the year 2000. Views on the subject - from the number of poor kids to the way we measure poverty - are coming fast and furious from all points on the political spectrum. In Saint John, 36 per cent of children are living in poverty, the highest rate in the province and a full 13 points above the national average.

Recent research I conducted with colleagues shows that poverty has serious negative consequences for children's development. Poor families are more likely than others to experience stress in the home, they are less likely than others to live in safe neighbourhoods and are less likely to enjoy access to the cultural and recreational activities that most Canadians take for granted. Our report, called Income and Child Well-being, examined the effects of family income on 27 aspects of child development using data from a large, national Statistics Canada survey. The results showed a clear and disturbing pattern: from their health and academic achievement to their behaviour and the types of friends they find, children living in families whose income is $30,000 or less display consistently poorer outcomes in every facet of their development.

For example: nearly 35 per cent of children in low-income families live in sub-standard housing, compared to 15 per cent of children in high-income families. More than one-quarter of low-income children live in problem neighbourhoods, compared to one-tenth of children in high-income families. Nearly 40 per cent of very low-income children demonstrate high levels of indirect aggression (such as starting fights with peers or family members), compared to 29 per cent of children in families with incomes of $30,000 or more. And children in low-income families are over two and one-half times more likely than children in high-income families to have a problem with one or more basic abilities such as vision, hearing, speech or mobility. Four- and five-year-olds from poor families are twice as likely to exhibit delayed vocabulary development compared to children from middle-income families and are twice as likely to be enrolled in remedial special education classes.

Left unchecked, more Canadian children are likely to suffer poorer outcomes, because income inequality between Canadian families is getting worse. In 1973, the poorest 20 per cent of families with children earned only 5 per cent of all market income - that is, earnings from employment and private investments. By 1996, that percentage had dropped to 2 per cent. At the same time, the richest 20 per cent of families with children saw their share of market income rise from 38 per cent to 43 per cent. This disparity lessened somewhat after adjusting for government taxes and transfers such as welfare payments, unemployment insurance and child benefits, however the poorest families still received a vastly smaller share of the total family income than did the ones with the highest incomes. But since 1973, even this situation has worsened due to cutbacks.

Certain groups - most notably young and single parents, those with disabilities and those belonging to ethnic minorities - face even higher rates of poverty and even greater difficulties earning enough money to stay out of poverty.

Given the growing federal surplus, it is time for the government to make significant and long-term investments in income supports and services for children and youth. The government's recent commitment to children and families in the Throne Speech is encouraging, demonstrating an understanding that many children in Canada need a better foundation to reach their potential. The improvements to parental leave and increased investment in the Child Tax Benefit, as promised by Prime Minister Chretien, are an important first step.

A balanced approach including social investment and tax reform that helps low- and middle-income families is the right way for the federal government to strengthen our country's infrastructure while managing the country's finances responsibly.

But the government needs to demonstrate that its commitment to children is more than token. Child care is as pressing a need for Canadians as is health care, and it is an essential cornerstone of early childhood development services. It is one of several services for children and youth in which both federal and provincial governments need to increase support. I am encouraged that the government has set a December 2000 deadline for announcing early childhood development initiatives. Now the federal government must show that it is serious about negotiating with the provinces by bringing a cheque book to the table.

David Ross
Executive Director
Canadian Council on Social Development


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