We also need to teach our kids to be active citizens

The Province

By Trish Garner, parent of three young children and the Community Organizer for the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition

My twins started kindergarten in September. By the end of this year, they will have taken part in two food-bank drives and multiple bake sales to raise money for all sorts of good causes. I am glad that the school is fostering a sense of social responsibility and that my children are thinking about others. However, I am concerned that the only solution they are learning to address issues of poverty and hunger is to donate. The slogan of our schools has become “bring your money.”

Where are the lessons about the structural causes of these societal problems and what our political institutions can do about them?

Almost one in five children live in poverty in B.C., according to the 2013 Child Poverty Report Card released last week by First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition. That’s 153,000 children, an increase from last year that puts us back in the No. 1 position with the worst child-poverty rate in Canada. Not a great title to hold!

The rate is worse for children under age six, which is especially worrying because of the damaging impact of poverty on children’s early physical, social and cognitive development.

The statistics are dismal but the overwhelming response provides hope. Clearly, people are concerned about child poverty in our province and want to take action to address it. However, just like in our schools, our response is often to donate. In fact, B.C. is one of the most generous provinces in Canada in terms of giving to charity. And yet, B.C.’s child-poverty rate has been the worst in Canada for nine of the last 10 years.

Don’t get me wrong; giving to charity is necessary in this time of great need in order to address the immediate needs of people living in poverty. However, charities can only provide short-term relief that addresses the “downstream” symptoms and we need long-term solutions that go “upstream” to fix the root causes.

Food banks are saying the same thing. In the recently released 2013 HungerCount report, Food Banks Canada highlights that “the root of the need is low income.” Their recommendations look “upstream” and include government commitments to provide affordable housing, education and training, support for low-wage workers and increased “social assistance so that people can build self-sufficiency instead of being trapped in poverty.”

Food banks were, in fact, initially meant to be a temporary measure but they have now been around for over 30 years. They have become such a normal part of society that we never question their role and the extent to which they can address these big issues. We give year after year without wondering why children are still going hungry in B.C.

As we take part in food bank drives this year, perhaps we should start asking that question and look to our government for answers.

When I talk to my children about these issues, I tell them that the government is a group of people that has the power and responsibility to make the “big rules” or “policies” that could really help children in poverty. I tell them that we vote for them to represent our concerns and they are (or should be) always interested in listening and making change for the good of all.

So, this holiday season, let’s match our donations with an action. Here’s an idea to take to our provincial government. Most other places in Canada have a poverty reduction plan and they are already saving lives and money. B.C. needs a comprehensive poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines to really make a difference for families, communities and our province.

The government’s response to poverty continues to be a reliance on the B.C. Jobs Plan. However, most people in poverty already have a job, and almost one in three poor children live in families with at least one adult working full-time year-round.

Poverty is a heavy issue and we need everyone to share the weight. Giving to charity is the community stepping up and now we need to ask government to share the weight with us.

We are teaching our children to be charitable givers, and fostering social service from a very young age. Let’s also teach them to be democratic citizens and think about social justice by engaging with their government. At the same time, let’s learn that ourselves.