B.C. is the worst place in Canada to be a kid

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun

Victoria and Ottawa both share blame for not doing enough to eliminate child poverty at time when money was spent on other ‘priorities’ 

British Columbia is the worst place to be in Canada if you’re a child, and it has been for all but one of the past 13 years.

The latest numbers released by Statistics Canada indicate that in 2011, British Columbia once again slipped into last place among the provinces, tied at the bottom with Manitoba.

It meant that 93,000 B.C. children lived in families whose incomes were below the low-income cut-off, known as the LICO.

Reversing more than a decade of failed public policy regarding children that persisted through good times and bad is the biggest challenge to Premier Christy Clark’s family-friendly agenda.

But it’s not solely the fault of the provincial government. So, change must come not only in Victoria.

The federal government shares the blame and not only for failing to live up to the unanimously approved resolution in 1989 that Canada would end child poverty by 2000.

But to understand this requires going through some numbers.

The poverty line in Vancouver in 2011 was $36,504 for a family of four and $23,498 for a lone parent with one child.

In 2011, Metro Vancouver had Canada’s highest housing costs — average rents that year ranged from $984 to $1,181 a month. So it’s no surprise so many parents struggled to make ends meet.

And it continues. Last year, Canada Mortgage and Housing reported that average rents rose at more than three times the inflation rate, while some people’s rose even more because the allowable rental increase was 4.3 per cent.

One in four children with a single mother lived in poverty in 2011.

The spike in poverty among female-led, lone-parent families tracked a dramatic fall in their median income. In a single year, it fell to $21,500 from $32,000.

Nearly one in 10 of B.C.’s poor kids have two parents.

Statistics Canada didn’t provide any deeper analysis of poor families. But, a study released last month by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and Save the Children does.

Its findings, based on 2006 census data, are shocking and point to an unofficial apartheid that aboriginal people have long complained of.

They explain why going to an Indian reserve in Canada feels like entering a foreign country.

Half of all First Nations kids live in poverty. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the rate jumps to nearly two-thirds. In B.C., which is the third worst, one in three aboriginal children live in poverty.

Yet, the report garnered little attention from media or, one suspects, from governments.

What’s even more striking is the disparity between First Nations kids and the lucky kids.

The lucky ones are the kids who have Canadian-born, Caucasian parents. Their chance of living in poverty is one in 12. If these were the only kids living here, Canada would out-perform every other country when it comes to child poverty.

But add in the not-so-lucky ones and Canada sits at 25 among 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

It’s here where the federal government bears responsibility.

Between 1996 and 2006, transfers for social services, health care, education and welfare to on-reserve First Nations children increased by two per cent each year — or just over 21 per cent in total. The population increased 29 per cent during the same period.

Eliminating child poverty isn’t cheap. But doing nothing has costs as well.

The 1996 report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples estimated that Canada lost $7.5 billion annually in lost productivity and increased costs because of child poverty.

A decade later, the Centre for the Study of Living Standards put it a different way: The annual economic benefit of indigenous people fully participating in the economy would be $115 billion over 20 years.

So how do we get there?

Private-sector employers have a role to play in paying wages that families can live on, says First Call, a non-partisan coalition of B.C. organizations that focus on improving the well-being of children and youth.

The coalition also urges the B.C. government to, among other things, increase welfare and index both welfare rates and the minimum wage to the cost of living, have a $10-a-day child care plan; improve coverage for dental care and prescription drugs, and improve access to post-secondary education.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives offers a simpler solution: Raise the total benefit from the National Child Benefit Supplement and the Canada Child Transfer to $5,400 for the first child, an increase of approximately $1,800.

Its cost estimate for that is $6.5 billion a year. For First Nations children on reserves, it says it would cost another $1 billion annually or roughly the equivalent of 11 per cent of the total Aboriginal Affairs Department budget.

I understand and anticipate that some people will argue the semantics of “poverty line” and the fine points of the LICO.

I know some will say bad parents are to blame for child poverty (as if that somehow justifies longtime harm to a child.)

And, I get it that prosperity requires economic health and well-paid jobs.

But it defies common decency that any child in British Columbia grows up hungry, ill-clothed and without a safe place to sleep.

And what’s clear from the past 13 years — when hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on the Olympics, a convention centre and replacing the roof on a football stadium — is that wealth doesn’t just trickle down.

Alleviating child poverty hasn’t happened and won’t without action to match the political rhetoric.

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