This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on June 26, 2000
Child Poverty UN Report
Candace Warner, a jobless single parent, lives with her sons - two-month-old Keo and 1 ½-year-old Skai - in Winnipeg's run-down Wolseley district. The product of an impoverished background, Candace, 24, struggles to pay the apartment rent and feed and care for her children on about $1,000 a month in social assistance. "My sons need new clothes and things that I can't buy," she says, "because I don't have the money." With Canada's once sturdy social safety net badly frayed, the plight of Candace and her kids is not unusual. According to a study released last week by the United Nations Children's Fund - UNICEF (the organization long ago changed its name, but kept the old acronym) - 15.5 per cent of Canadians under 18 live in poverty. That relegated Canada to 17th place in a ranking of 23 industrialized nations and prompted demands for action. "Politicians talk about eradicating child poverty," said Jean-Marie Nadeau, executive assistant at the New Brunswick Federation of Labour. "Then they shut their big doors and the young are forgotten."
As it happened, publication of the UN study coincided with a Statistics Canada report showing that a buoyant economy finally pushed 1998 family incomes past levels recorded before the recession of the early 1990s, with after-tax family incomes averaging $49,626. The numbers also showed the gap between low-income and affluent Canadians steadily widening, leaving 3.7 million Canadians in straitened circumstances.
Income disparities figured prominently in the UNICEF study, which estimated that 47 million impoverished children live in the world's 23 richest countries. The report found the lowest rates of child poverty among northern European countries with strong traditions of wealth redistribution. Sweden - with only 2.6 per cent of its children living in poverty - had the lowest rate, while Canada ranked behind France, Germany, Hungary and Japan, but ahead of Britain, Italy, the United States and Mexico, in last place with a 26.2-per-cent child poverty rate.
The sometimes surprising findings were partly due to methodology - the rankings were based on "relative poverty," defined as household income that is less than half of the national median. That meant nations like the Czech Republic and Poland, with high overall poverty rates, came out ahead of Canada, Britain and the United States, where higher average incomes and income disparities make more people relatively poor. "Canada reflects poorly in a relative measurement," said Marta Morgan, director of children's policy at Human Resources Development Canada, "because middle incomes in this country are quite high." Even so, when social advocacy groups use StatsCan's low-income cutoff as a measure of poverty, they generally estimate there were about 1.4 million poor children in Canada in 1997 - a child poverty rate of 19.8 per cent that is well above UNICEF's.
The study's authors argued that even when children from families with limited resources have the necessities of life, they suffer by being excluded from normal childhood activities. Linda Rowe, a single Halifax mother who stretches aid of about $1,400 a month to support herself and two young sons, knows they are feeling that pinch. "Right now, I'm trying to borrow $20 so my kids can go on a school trip," she says.
With the years of stringent budget-cutting behind them, Ottawa and some provinces have started to rebuild social supports that benefit low-income families. Finance Minister Paul Martin's February budget reduced taxes for families with children and earmarked $2.5 billion in additional funding for Ottawa's child tax benefit, which currently pays up to about $160 a month for children in low-income families. And after nearly three years of wrangling, federal-provincial talks on a proposed National Children's Agenda - that could usher in early childhood development and child-care programs - appeared to be moving ahead, with ministers agreeing to draft a policy framework by the fall. Even so, some provinces still insist that Ottawa will have to restore billions of dollars in lost health and social funding before the agenda becomes a reality - a stumbling block that could hold up long-overdue measures to help Canada's children.
Poor Kids in Developed Nations
Percentage of children living in "relative" poverty (household income below 50 per cent of national median):
Czech Republic: 5.9%
United States: 22.4%
Maclean's June 26, 2000