Poor families equal poor children: given the extent of poverty in Canada, particularly among single-parent families, it follows that many of the victims are children.
Some progress has been made since then, but not a lot. Unicef reported in March 2005 that Canada is near the bottom among the world's wealthiest nations in terms of its level of child poverty. Out of 26 developed countries, Canada held the 19th position, putting it behind the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, but ahead of the United States and Britain.
At about 15.6%, Canada's child poverty rate is far behind the rates in Scandinavian countries, which boast the lowest rates among countries covered in the report. Denmark had the lowest rate at 2.4%, followed by Finland, Norway, and Sweden. At the bottom of the list were Mexico with a child poverty rate of 27.7%, the United States, at 21.9%, and Italy, at 16.6%.
Of the 24 countries with statistics that go back to the early 1990s, the report found that child-poverty rates climbed in all but seven. It all amounts to a total of 40 to 50 million children living below national poverty lines in the world's richest countries.
The report, Child Poverty in Rich Countries 2005, says there are three key forces in determining the level of child poverty in industrial countries: social trends, labour market conditions, and government policies. The rise in the average age of parents, for example, along with the educational level of mothers and the proportion of mothers in the workforce, tend to increase the economic resources available to children. As well, a drop in earnings for fathers, particularly those at the bottom end of the income scale, also significantly increases the risk of higher numbers of children growing up poor. No surprise there.
Obviously, higher government spending on family and social benefits will affect child poverty rates too. The study found that on average, government interventions, such as family and child-oriented taxes and benefits, reduce by 40 percent the rates of child poverty that would be expected to result if market forces were left to themselves.
Interestingly though, the report also showed that poverty rates varied substantially--from three percent to 15 percent--among countries with similar levels of overall government spending. In other words, the amount of money spent is less important than where it is allocated: "Many countries appear to have the potential to reduce child poverty below 10 percent without a significant increase in their spending overall." It's a question of choices.
More than half of the 28 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in the study increased the percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) devoted to social expenditures between 1990 and 2000. However, most of the extra funds went to pensions and health care. Meanwhile, many of them dropped the amount that went to child and family expenditures.
As a Unicef director said: "The most serious problems facing our societies in the industrialized world have their roots in child poverty. Allowing the kind of poverty that denies a child the opportunities that most children consider normal, is a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an instrument to which almost all OECD members are committed. Making child poverty history is not just a mantra for the developing world. Reducing the upward trend in child poverty rates must be a priority for all governments."
Keeping things as they are makes for grim prospects among poor children.
Many studies have shown that low-income children face higher risks than middle-income children, while high-income children face the least risks of all. For example, a 1999 study by the Canadian Council on Social Development found that children in low-income families are twice as likely to live in poorly functioning families as children in high-income families. They also are twice as likely to live with violence, and more than three times as likely to live with a depressed parent. The report, Income and Child Well-Being: A New Perspective on the Poverty Debate, also found that:
* More than one quarter of low-income children live in problem neighbourhoods--where, for example, there is drug use, excessive public drinking, or youth unrest--compared to one tenth of children in high/income families;
* Children in low-income families are twice as likely to be in the top 10 percent in terms of frequency of delinquent behaviours, compared to children in modest-income families, and they are nearly three times as likely to have high delinquency scores as children in high-income families;
* Children in low-income families are more than 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;
* More than one third of children from low-income families exhibit delayed vocabulary development, compared to only eight percent of children in high income families;
* About three quarters of children in low-income families rarely participate in organized sports, compared to one quarter of high-income children;
* One in six teens (aged 16 to 19 years) from low-income families is neither employed nor in school, compared to only one teen in 25 from middle and high-income families.
Poverty can be a legacy handed down through generations. It starts with children who tend to be sicker, earn lower grades in school, and suffer more behavioural problems. The schools they attend are not as well equipped as those in more affluent neighbourhoods where the parents advocate strongly on behalf of their kids. But, it doesn't have to be an inheritance; social scientists have recently discovered that four out of ten children raised in poverty make it to the top half of the income ladder. So what's the secret of that 40 percent? It really is all about education. Miles Corak at Statistics Canada says: "It's got something to do with education policy and access to postsecondary education in a big way. And, it's got something to do with early childhood investments ..."
Governments have tried all sorts of programs to achieve Parliament's unanimous promise in 1989 to defeat child poverty by the end of the 20th century, but nothing seems to work very well. In 2002, the National Child Benefit program, a federal-provincial/territorial agreement, kicked in. It is targeted to provide additional money to low-and middle-income families, and it has helped. But, anti-poverty groups say the government has to do more. Campaign 2000 says ending child poverty in Canada is a major undertaking requiring social investments in the range of $18 billion, spread out over the next five years (to 2010). The group says the money would come from current federal surpluses and modest tax recovery.
That's a lot of money, but research has shown that for every dollar that a country invests in giving children a good start in life, the country saves $7 in costs for health and other problems that arise when kids' basic needs are not met.
1. Write, call, e-mail, or meet with your Federal Member of Parliament to ask what progress the government is making in fulfilling its commitments to end child poverty. Similarly, organize a meeting with your local MPP and ask for information on provincial initiatives to address child poverty.
2. The Campaign Against Child Poverty is a national, non-partisan coalition of citizens from various groups concerned about what they see as the unacceptably high levels of child and family poverty in Canada. Research what the organization is doing to help.
Child Poverty in Canada and the Provinces, 2002 Child Poverty $ needed to reach poverty line Couples Lone Rate with female (%) Number children parents Canada 15.6 1,065,000 $9,000 $8,800 Newfoundland and Labrador 21.9 24,000 $6,300 $7,100 Prince Edward Island 11.4 4,000 -- -- Nova Scotia 18.1 36,000 $6,900 $7,300 New Brunswick 14.3 23,000 $7,700 $6,200 Quebec 16.0 245,000 $8,500 $8,200 Ontario 13.6 373,000 $9,700 $9,100 Manitoba 20.8 53,000 $9,900 $10,300 Saskatchewan 18.7 44,000 $5,700 $7,400 Alberta 13.3 98,000 $8,800 $8,900 British Columbia 19.6 167,000 $10,000 $10,400 Source: Statistics Canada's Income Trends in Canada, 2002
Campaign 2000 is a country-wide public education movement to build Canadian awareness and support for the 1989 federal government resolution to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. The organization started in 1991 because it felt the government wasn't making any progress in addressing the issue.
Campaign 2000 puts out an annual national Report Card on Child Poverty in Canada, and its most recent report (2004) maintains that one of the biggest stumbling blocks continues to be lack of government will.
The group points out that, "Fifteen years ago the House of Commons unanimously resolved to 'seek to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000.' In the midst of a growing economy more than one million children, or nearly one child in six, still live in poverty in Canada."
The movement has grown to include more than 85 national, community, and provincial partners, and it's not impressed with our current status. It argues that Canada's poverty rate jumped for the first time in 2002, after five straight years of decline, because the government failed to make key investments that would have continued the downward momentum. Here are some highlights from the Campaign's latest assessment on how we're doing:
* Child and family poverty is worsening with more than one million children in poverty, an increase of 402,000 since 1989. That translates into a child poverty, rate of 15.6% (2002);
* No progress has been made for low-income couples with children who still were an average of $9,000 below the poverty line in 2002. Their 10 percent poverty rate did not change from the previous year;
* Lone-mother families were worse off in 2002 with the child poverty rate for these families rising above 50 percent for the first time in three years. Low-income, lone-mother families would need an average of $8,800 annually to reach the poverty line;
* No progress has been made to narrow the gap between rich and poor families with deep inequality entrenched through economic boom. Canada's top 10 percent richest families with children had average incomes that were more than 11 times higher than the bottom 10 percent;
* 2003 was a record year for food bank use--317,242 food bank users were children;
* Child poverty rates for Aboriginal, immigrant and children in visible minority groups are more than double the average for all children; the child poverty rate among children with disabilities is 27.7%.
What needs to be done? The report recommends raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, raising federal child benefits, stopping provincial clawbacks for social assistance recipients, developing a universally accessible system of quality early learning and child care, expanding affordable housing, and renewing the national social safety net through the Canada Social Transfer with increased federal funding and improved accountability for provincially delivered social services.
A MIXED BAG
Provision of quality day care is considered a key to beating child poverty. Research has shown that children who have attended day care perform better when they arrive at elementary school. This continues as they progress through the grades, and is particularly true for disadvantaged children. In general, children attending day care are more social, more affectionate, more cooperative, and show less negative behaviour than children who do not attend. It also increases their chances of academic success and reduces the risk of dropping out of school before graduation.
Providing quality day care benefits society as a whole too. University of Toronto research showed a two-to-one payoff for public expenditures for child care because it allows mothers to work and it gives the children a positive staff that leads to a healthier and more productive future.
But, poor children are not the only vulnerable kids. While they are more at risk, a recent national study of 22,000 children from birth to age 11, found that more than 60 percent of vulnerable children in Canada are spread throughout the middle classes. The study showed that 37 percent of children in the poorest families were vulnerable on one or more skill sets: they had difficult temperaments, limited communication skills, or below-average physical abilities. But, even among the top quarter of earners, almost one in four children had problems.
A University of New Brunswick study came to similar conclusions. A higher percentage of children from families earning less than $25,000 a year had difficulties but two-thirds of them arrived at school as ready to learn as their wealthiest peers. So, low income increases the risk of problems--for every $10,000 a family's income increased, the percentage of vulnerable children declined somewhat--but, there are other factors important to child development. Stability and consistency are among them: a Saskatoon study, for example, found that children were doing very well in a lower-income area where the parents were employed and less likely to move. Parents depended on each other to look out for their kids, and were more connected to their neighbourhoods.
According to Statistics Canada, the proportion of children under the age of 15 living in families with incomes below the Low, Income Cut-Off in Toronto decreased from about 37 percent (1996 Census) to 30 percent (2001 Census): this percentage represents 128,755 children 0-14 years;
The world spends almost one trillion dollars annually on defence; and many countries, including some of the poorest, continue to budget far more military armaments and personnel than for health or education.
In Canada, between 1984 and 1999, the average net wealth of the top 20 percent of couples with children increased by 43 percent. Among the middle 20 percent of couples, it grew by just three percent, and for families at the bottom of the income scale, it tell by more than 51 percent.
Canada and Finland both have Indigenous people and the same rate of single-parent households, yet the child poverty rate in Finland is one-third of Canada's. While Finland has only a slightly lower percentage of families on social benefits, it has three times Canada's social expenditure.
Campaign Against Child Poverty--http://www. childpoverty.com
Free the Children--http://www.freethechildren.org/ Campaign 2000 (What you can do)--http://www.campaign2000.ca/act/