How long must poor kids in B.C. wait for action?

The Province

By Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition and. Dr. John Millar, vice-president of the Public Health Association of B.C., a University of B.C. clinical professor emeritus and a member of First Call’s co-ordinating committee.

The 2013 B.C. Child Poverty Report Card, published by First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, again contains a list of shameful statistics for our wealthy province compared with the rest of the country: highest child-poverty rate (18.6 per cent); highest under-age-six poverty rate (21 per cent); highest two parent family poverty rate (14 per cent); and highest single-mother family poverty rate (50 per cent). Yes, you read that last one right – one in every two children in single mother families in B.C. is poor. All of these 2011 statistics, the latest data available, represent an increase from 2010. The most dramatic increase was among children in single-mother families, from 22 per cent to 50 per cent. Other Statistics Canada data show median market income for female-led, lone-parent families dropped from $32,000 to $21,500. No wonder their poverty rate soared.

What’s driving high child-poverty rates? Contrary to common perceptions, most poor children in B.C. live with parents who work; almost a third of them have at least one parent working full-time, full year. Children’s poverty in B.C. is primarily a reflection of their parents’ low wages and precarious jobs.

It’s also a reflection of the fact that B.C. has the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children. The primary reason B.C. had the largest ratio of incomes between the top 10 per cent and the bottom 10 per cent (12.6 to one) was the very low incomes among families in the poorest group of families, averaging only $18,000 per year.

Child and family poverty has a devastating effect on children. It impedes their ability to learn and impairs their health. Children living in poverty are less likely to do well in school, finish high school and are more likely to become street-involved or become pregnant at an early age. They are more vulnerable to being drawn into drug and alcohol use and criminal behaviour.

Poverty in B.C. is costing the taxpayer $8 billion to $9 billion per year in higher health care, policing and crime costs and lost productivity, while poverty could be eliminated for about $3 billion to $4 billion per year, according to a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Despite these stats, B.C. stands out among the provinces for having done the least to reduce child poverty through government action. Citing a slogan of “one size doesn’t fit all,” in 2012, the provincial government proposed “regional poverty reduction strategies” to impact only 10 to 15 low-income families in seven pilot communities. There has been no public reporting of the outcomes of these seven initiatives. Relying instead on slogans and beliefs, the B.C. government cites the importance of free markets to poverty reduction and asserts, as Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux did in a July letter to the editor, “we will continue to target economic growth as the best method to reduce poverty, simply because it works.”

But the child-poverty stats in this and previous years’ reports tell another story. Even with a growing economy, poverty and inequity is increasing.

Government’s inaction flies in the face of public concern about poverty and inequality. Over the past decade, municipalities, school districts, doctors, business groups, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth, First Call’s 95 partner organizations and the members of B.C.’s Poverty Reduction Coalition have all urged the B.C. government to commit to a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with concrete targets and timelines. Recently, the legislature’s finance committee has joined the chorus in its recommendations for the 2014 budget. It’s time for the provincial government and federal MPs to look at the evidence of what’s happening to children and families in B.C. It’s time to look “upstream” at the causes of child and family poverty and to act on the solutions in this and many other reports. Affordable housing, affordable quality child care, better employment protections for vulnerable workers, improved access to education and training for low-income earners, better supports for young families, welfare rates and policies that help families move forward – these are just some of the places where governments can act.

And it’s time for the business community to consider what it can contribute. A living wage for all workers would go a long way to reducing child and family poverty. It is simply unacceptable that one out of every five B.C. children is living in poverty. The report card can be downloaded at