Child Poverty in Canada
At times, the surroundings must seem grim. The white walls are devoid of decoration, except for a home-made Valentine addressed to "Maman" on the refrigerator, and twin beds are pushed together in the dining-room to create more space. In the kitchen, Jonathan Robillard hugs his small tawny cat, Charlotte, as she brushes against his round, serious face. The nine-year-old waffles diplomatically when asked how he likes living in the cramped apartment he shares with his mother, Huguette Robillard, and his brother, Jean-Sébastien, 7, in the St. Henri section of Montreal. "If it was all repaired, I'd like it a lot more," he adds after a thoughtful pause. "In the bathroom, there's a big hole."
His mother, who lost her job as a cashier in 1992 and has lived on welfare ever since, recalls what it was like when she was earning $9.50 an hour at a hardware chain that went bankrupt during the last recession. "He had everything he wanted," Robillard, 40, says of Jonathan. Now, the family scrapes by on welfare of $843 a month, $523 of which goes for rent and electricity. Although Robillard has only a Grade 10 education and says she receives no assistance from the boys' father, she never expected this. Despite scores of attempts, she has been unable to find another job. "It was very disappointing for me because I'd never been on welfare," says Robillard. "I always relied on myself."
The sight of POVERTY is nothing new in Canada, but in recent years the extent and depth of the problem has become a national embarrassment. The country that prides itself on its social safety net now has the second highest rate of child poverty in the developed world - one in five, or roughly 1.5 million kids - outstripped only by the United States. The issue finally gained visibility last fall when Ottawa announced it would create a new child tax benefit for poor families in the 1997 budget being tabled by Finance Minister Paul Martin this week.
But the program has not been greeted with the unreserved praise the government had expected. Many believe that the extra cash - an estimated $525 million - falls seriously short of what is needed; others argue the money would be better spent on job creation or specific programs aimed at such corrosive problems as neglect and addiction. The new benefit also has been dismissed as a feel-good issue, partly designed to reinstate the cost-cutting Liberals' battered image as a caring government in the pre-election months. "We are concerned that this is a one-shot deal," says Lynne Toupin, executive director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. "The problem has gotten much bigger, and we need a multi-year, multi-program strategy to attack this in a comprehensive way."
Certainly, something needs to be done. Since 1989, the number of children living below the poverty line has jumped by 45 per cent - largely as a result of the recession of the early 1990s and the so-called jobless recovery. The majority of those children live in families with incomes more than $8,000 below that line, set by Statistics Canada at roughly $25,000 for a family of three living in a city of more than 500,000. Poverty has cut a wide swath through society, hitting people with years of work experience, as well as those who may be fighting such familiar barriers as racial discrimination or generations of welfare dependence. Belying the stereotypes, 55 per cent of poor children live in two-parent families. For those families with only one parent, conditions are even worse: their poverty is too often mixed with social isolation and acute stress.
Poverty alone, of course, does not make for troubled families. Experts emphasize that poor children with involved parents do just as well as other children. However, when seemingly endemic problems such as family violence are mixed with poverty, the outcome for kids is bleak. "The connection is not direct," says Sid Frankel, associate professor of social work at the University of Manitoba, "but we find that adults who were poor as children are overrepresented among those with low educational achievement, patterns of unemployment, poor health and family violence."
Chronic unemployment and government cost-cutting - both potential triggers for child poverty - are becoming far more common. It is also clear that women and children frequently bear the financial burden of family breakdown. While only about five per cent of all Canadians live in families headed by a single parent, usually a woman, the number of those who live below the poverty line is shocking: almost 60 per cent. That is often because the average income for a two-parent family with one wage earner - about $44,000 - is adequate for most intact families, but falls far short when it must be split between two households. At the same time, spending on child benefits has dropped to $5.3 billion in 1996 from $6.6 billion in 1984, adjusted for inflation.
When one risk factor is piled onto others, the consequences are often sobering. Kristy Dudley, 20, left school after Grade 9, about the same time her parents' marriage collapsed. For her relatively prosperous family, the breakup was both a financial and emotional disaster. She now rarely talks to her mother. "My life went downhill from there," says Kristy between mouthfuls of macaroni and cheese at the Mustard Seed Street Ministry, a centre for low-income families in downtown Calgary. Beside her, in a blue sleeper, is her one-year-old daughter, Amber. Her two other children, by a different father - aged 2 and 3 - live with foster parents. Kristy, meanwhile, is three months pregnant with her fourth child.
Sitting close by is the father-to-be, Wayne Morris, 21. The couple, who plan to marry soon, try to make ends meet on social assistance of $1,010 a month and the jobs that Wayne gets through a temporary placement service. On good days, he does heavy hauling in a warehouse or shovelling snow for $7 an hour. But the chances of the two finding steady work are slim. Kristy has few job skills and Wayne was kicked out of school and his low-income home when he was 16. Says Kristy: "It's tough to find work when you have no experience or education."
Often, the middle-class response to such a predicament can be anger and incredulity. But Paul Steinhauer, a psychiatrist at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and an outspoken advocate of better social supports for children, warns: "If we try to punish the parents by withdrawing support, we will only create more inequity." Certainly, children appear to be suffering because of social welfare cutbacks. As part of a massive deficit-cutting campaign, Alberta lowered the boom on welfare recipients in 1993, slicing rates by 15 per cent. Front-line workers like Linda Gibson, who counsels families at risk at a Calgary group called Families First, say they are seeing more well-intentioned parents who cannot seem to cope. "It used to be that if you saw a child who was pale and undernourished it was because the parent had a substance-abuse problem," she says. "Now, more and more, it's because people don't have enough money for food."
While almost all of the provinces, bent on balancing their books, have followed Alberta's example by cutting welfare benefits, British Columbia has chosen a different course. Last July, the province introduced the B.C. Family Bonus, a new cash payment that benefits 200,000 families with net incomes of $18,000 or less. Under the program, those families receive up to $1,236 per year per child, the same amount paid to families on welfare. Last month, a study by Toronto consultant Michael Mendelson, found that the new money has reduced the number of two-parent families below the poverty line by 19 per cent. Among single-parent families, the reduction was 26 per cent. In an interview with Maclean's, Premier Glen Clark dismissed criticism that the money would have been better spent on job creation or increased welfare benefits. "With scarce resources," he said, "we had to help the working poor."
Margaret and Elmer Wilson, who live in Vancouver's east end, believe the new benefit will make a big difference to their family. Margaret, 27, cares for their four children, aged 2 to 7, while Elmer, 39, works as an optical laboratory technician for about $24,000 a year. They depend on a clothing exchange at their local school, as well as an annual $100 honorarium from Elmer's native band, the Homalco, and the presents and groceries provided by neighborhood sponsors at Christmas.
"I wouldn't want to think about what it would be like if we didn't have these things to help us out," says Elmer. "I work hard, but we live paycheque to paycheque." The new money will be especially welcome once their next child arrives in April. "It will still be tough, but I'm not panicking any more," he says. In fact, Wilson says, he simply accepts his circumstances as a fact of life. What he objects to, he says, is the way others sometimes judge his family. "Not all Indians are drunk," he says. "I don't drink and I don't do drugs. There are many of us here who are struggling."
The federal program does, in fact, borrow some of its features from the B.C. model, creating incentives for low-income working families to stay off welfare. But according to family advocates, a wider variety of help is urgently needed. Robert Glossop, research director of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family, has spent more than two decades studying the problems faced by poor families. "The big concern," he warns, "is that Canadians may be tempted to think this new program will fix things. But this is just the foundation - it's not a magic potion." Programs targeted at specific problems, such as job creation or family breakdown, are also badly needed, he says.
Nothing would be more welcome for Jason and Shellie Van de Laar. With Grade 11 educations, little work experience beyond short-term stints in unskilled jobs, and two children, aged 3 and 2, they are relying on welfare until Jason, 24, finds a job. Meals are often goulash and watery omelettes; recreation for the kids, says 25-year-old Shellie, is "a walk around the block" near their home in Winnipeg. But, as Jason says, there seems to be no way out for people like him. If he earns more than $95 a month, he loses part of the family welfare cheque of $1,170. Yet with no experience, he cannot find work. "I lay awake at night, just going over the bills in my head," he says. "Everything is money, money."
In an upbeat election-style news conference last week, Ottawa announced that more of its money will be directed at the problem of youth unemployment. About $255 million will be spent over the next two years to help students gain work experience. Last week, critics attacked the program for ignoring families like the Van de Laar's. "This program speaks to the interests of middle-income Canadians who vote in greater numbers," says MP Chris Axworthy, a New Democrat from Saskatchewan. "People who have suffered the most are receiving nothing."
For those in large urban centres, the double whammy of unemployment and reduced government assistance has had particularly ugly consequences. Toronto has one of the country's highest concentrations of poor children - about one in four. Last year, the Tory government of Premier Mike Harris cut welfare rates by over 21 per cent, leaving many almost unbearably squeezed.
Donna Clayton, 35, who is trying to raise four children on $1,078 a month, often cannot make ends meet. On one recent evening, dinner for her kids consisted of french fries, with one glass of milk reserved for the five-year-old, Kevin. Clayton's partner, the father of her two youngest children, recently left the family's three-bedroom subsidized townhouse in the city's west end. Alcohol, Clayton says, was the culprit. Laci, 7, cuddling on her mother's lap, says there is nothing she wants except "a hug." But Michael, 11, who is having problems at school, is angry. Despite his youth, he is hungry for a job. "I want money," he says. "I want to buy things, and I would like a house without cockroaches and spiders."
Another Toronto family, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1991, are desperately trying to raise two teenagers in the Jane-Finch corridor, a neighborhood riddled with prostitutes, drug dealers and police in bulletproof vests. They requested anonymity to protect their children. The father, who works only intermittently as a carpenter, has sunk so far into anger and depression that his wife fears for their marriage. But with a job cleaning hotel rooms for about $18,000 a year and two teenagers needing emotional support, the wife has little energy left over.
Her 17-year-old daughter wants to be a lawyer and is a star member of her school's track team, but achieving her goals could be more challenging than for most Canadian teens: she is regularly taunted by drug dealers as she leaves the family home. "They call you 'skattal,' " she says "and try and talk you off the line." Translation: "They call you slut and try to get you to buy drugs." The intimidation also follows her into school. "I sit in the same classrooms with them," she says. "You have to be careful not to say too much or you will be beat up."
Clearly, social assistance alone is utterly inadequate in addressing the problems that burden the country's poor. Chris Sarlo, an economics professor at Nipissing University in North Bay, Ont., and an adjunct scholar at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, says building a healthy economy is the best way to fight poverty. The gains from social assistance, he says, are short term and can create long-term dependence. "Everybody needs a safety net," he says, "but people should have a sense of personal responsibility."
But Ken Battle, president of the Ottawa-based Caledon Institute of Social Policy and an architect of the new child benefit, believes it is an essential starting point. "People pushing the benefit are the last to argue it is the whole answer," he says. "But income security makes a huge difference to the rate of child poverty." It is obvious that the poor need jobs, Battle adds, but poverty is the result of deeply rooted forces, such as family breakdown. The notion that the poor are the authors of their own misfortune practically has him spitting nails. "The idea of poverty as pathology is despicable," he says. "It's a 19th-century idea dressed up in new language."
At least one new trend supports that view. Increasingly, low-income parents are designing and running innovative programs that provide social and material support for their kids. Collective kitchens, a sort of cooking bee where people meet to prepare nutritious and economical meals, began in one of Montreal's poorest areas in the mid-1980s. The program is made up mostly of women, who meet in small groups to cook large quantities of food, says Johanne Talbot, who helps set up new groups. Saving money is usually the primary goal, but the kitchens also create a support network. Their objectives are "as much to nourish people psychologically as physically," she says.
In Vancouver, the 1993 beating of an eight-year-old boy who was walking home in the early evening prompted communities in the downtown Broadway corridor to start the KidSafe Project Society. Children now have a place to stay when they are not in school and their parents are not at home, including all school breaks. Funded by government and private donations, the program provides breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack, as well as arts and crafts, and day trips outside the city. "Occasionally, kids who have already graduated from the school will still come by, hang out and maybe grab a meal," says Jenny Chin, vice-principal of Grandview ?Uuqinak'uuh Elementary, one of the project's schools. Kids who keep coming back to a place where they get enough to eat, feel safe and know they are surrounded by friends - there is hardly a better barometer of success in the struggle to give children the things they need the most.
See alsoCHILD WELFARE.
Maclean's February 24, 1997