It’s easier to ignore statistics than little faces with names

Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun

Children are going to school in Metro Vancouver without food, without shoes, without winter coats or mittens. Some are tormented by bedbug bites; others with head lice.

The stories are as heartbreaking as they seem incredible in this City of Glass so often described as one of the most livable in the world and in this province that not that long ago audaciously described itself as the best place on Earth.

Tell that to the children. Tell that to the wonderful teachers, principals, volunteers, charities and individual donors who do what they can to make things better every day and not just at Christmas time.

Desperately poor, malnourished children should be unimaginable here. But who are we kidding? We shouldn’t be shocked nor should the policy-makers.

For most of the last decade, every statistic has pointed to this. Of course, it’s easier to ignore percentage points and poverty rates than it is little faces with names.

In this province, as many as 140,000 boys and girls … live below the poverty line along with their families.

Yes, it’s related to the city’s exorbitant housing prices. But that’s not the only reason. Stories that The Vancouver Sun has run over the past month about the crying needs of children in Metro Vancouver could be replicated in every community of this province.

It’s likely the stories would be even worse from many of British Columbia’s first nations’ reserves. The Canadian Coalition for the Rights of the Child recently reported that 12 per cent of aboriginal children live in poverty, 13 per cent live in unhealthy housing, 38 per cent are food bank users and nearly 55 per cent with disabilities can’t afford the aids and equipment that they need.

People can quibble over the statistical analysis and what the exact numbers are. They can argue whether it’s 100,000 kids or 140,000 kids living in poverty in British Columbia. They can argue over percentages: Statistics Canada says it was 14 per cent in 2009, up from 10.4 per cent in 2008; child advocacy groups use the same stats and apply the low-income cut-off to reach a figure of 16.9 per cent in 2009, up from 14.5 per cent in 2008.

But the bottom line is simple. For eight years, British Columbia has had the highest child poverty rate in Canada – higher even than the so-called have-not provinces and territories. For the past 11 years, child poverty rates in B.C. have been above the national average…

Despite all that, for most of the past decade a higher percentage of British Columbia’s children have lived in poverty.

That suggests charity alone can’t solve this difficult problem.

Earlier this year, the provincial government raised the minimum wage for the first time in a decade. Over the past couple of years, it has also put millions into affordable housing.

That should help.

But to put an end to the human tragedies played out every day in our schools and on our streets, everyone including the government must make poverty reduction a priority.

The cost may be high, but the rewards are greater.