Op-Ed: Child Poverty: It's more than just a numbers game

November 25, 2002

People on opposite sides of the child poverty issue in Canada often play the numbers game. So when we at the Canadian Council on Social Development reported last week that despite years of economic growth, Canada's child poverty rate is largely unchanged and those who are poor are in fact getting poorer, skeptics jumped on the conclusion, arguing that the problem is ameliorating. After all, didn't Statistics Canada find that the number of children below the low income cut-off (LICO) decreased by two per cent in the late 1990s and that family income improved during the period? How can both studies be true?

Well, they can and are. No matter how you count them, too many children go to bed hungry, aren't doing well at school, have poor health, don't get involved in organized recreation or live with a depressed parent. These are the messages that come through loud and clear in the sixth annual progress report on children released by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) last week (Nov.4). And for many children, life is getting worse, not better, even in boom times.

That's because while the latest overall numbers – which do show some improvement for poor families, but far below that of their wealthier neighbours – tell one side of the story, they miss an important aspect of poverty. What the CCSD study shows is that the depth of poverty – which is the amount of money needed to move out of poverty – has remained relatively stagnant at around $8,500 below the low-income cut-off. In other words, those who live in poverty are living in deep poverty, well below what is needed to have a decent quality of life.

Equally telling are the changes in the distribution of wealth in this country. Wealth is defined as a family's assets minus its debts, with assets including such items as houses, cars, stocks and bonds. Assets are said to be the key to a family's future, while income represents how a family is coping now. The wealth of the poorest 20 per cent of couples with children under 18 went down by 51.4 per cent between 1984 and 1999, whereas that of the wealthiest 20 per cent of couples increased by 42.7 per cent. The wealth gap in this country is staggering.

And while families in poverty may be making some modest income gains, even if they can't accumulate any real assets, they are being hit hard with rising costs for items they desperately need – education, health care and housing. Between 1992 and 1999, family expenditures for things like textbooks and school fees almost doubled to more than $1,400. Two-parent families spent an average of $1500 on health care in 1999, up considerably over the decade. And adequate housing in major Canadian cities is out of reach for poor families who may spend more than 50 per cent of their income on shelter.

These numbers show the need to acknowledge two things about child poverty in this country: things are not getting better, and these trends will have a profound impact on Canada's future prosperity. We can't pat ourselves on the back if the best we can do for poor children at the height of an economic boom is to reduce their poverty rate by about two per cent, see their family wealth drop significantly and charge them more for the things they desperately need. And we can't ignore the fact that a significant segment of our child population may never have access to quality child care, organized recreation, safe and affordable housing or food security – important ingredients to their healthy growth and development. Canada will pay a big price down the road for this failure.

The painful irony in all of these findings is the apparent disconnect between the rhetoric of our political leaders and the actions they take to ensure that our country prospers. On the one hand, they tell us about the importance of productivity, skills and innovation and the need to improve our economic performance vis-à-vis the United States. On the other hand, they refuse to admit that too many children are being excluded and they will not take the bold steps required to narrow the great divide between rich and poor, ensuring that all our children have a fair chance to succeed in life.

It's time for all sides to reach the obvious conclusion that while jobs and a strong economy are essential ingredients in the fight against poverty, they are not sufficient. The slight progress we have made in the best of economic times should tell us this. There is no way around the need to invest more substantially in our social supports: the National Child Benefit must put more money directly into the pockets of people in low-income, including those on welfare; the Early Childhood Development Agreement needs to have new money specifically targeted to quality child care; and social housing programs must be set up to give more families access to decent, affordable places to live.

Governments are now looking at investing billions to repair the physical infrastructure of our cities. They need to repair our crumbling social infrastructure as well. For the last decade, they have focused on deficit elimination and tax reduction. This has taken a heavy toll on social supports and we are seeing the impact on our children and families.

Let's not kid ourselves – there will be no progress without new investments and without a substantial effort from all levels of government. No matter how you crunch the numbers, there are far too many families with children in this country who can't make ends meet. Governments need to help level the playing field. Moving on the National Child Benefit, child care and housing fronts will go a long way in getting the job done.

Marcel Lauzière, President, Canadian Council on Social Development


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