Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Child Poverty a Growing Issue for Province, Country

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, December 12 / 16

Zack Gross

Multiple groups recently called upon the federal and provincial governments to work together to solve growing poverty issues.  Nationally, a coalition of agencies called Campaign 2000 has spoken out ever since then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien's government passed a Resolution in the House of Commons on November 24th, 1989, resolving to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.  Seventeen years after the Resolution was passed, no federal or provincial government has made a dent in growing poverty statistics.

Back in 1989, estimates were that one child in six in Canada lived in poverty.  Today, that figure has risen to one in five, a total of 1.3 million children.  Although Canada considers itself to be a wealthy country, UNICEF ranks it 26th out of the 35 most developed countries in terms of child inequality.  Overall, from 1989 to today, child poverty has increased from 15.8 to 18.5%.  On reserves, First Nations child poverty is 60%.

The situation in Manitoba is dire.  Since 1989, our rate of child poverty has risen from 23% to 29% (2014 figures) despite overall growth in our province's economy.  Only Nunavut “boasts” of greater child poverty.  Campaign 2000 and, in our province, Make Poverty History Manitoba, have pinpointed the problems and conditions that have caused this situation, and are also calling for specific actions.

Many poor people have jobs.  The problem here is that many of these jobs are short-term, seasonal, part-time and/or low-paying.  Two million Canadian workers are doing temporary work.  Campaigners would like to see more full-time jobs being created and want our provincial government to raise the minimum wage to a “living wage.”   Their calculations say that an adequate minimum wage would be $15.53 per hour but our provincial government recently froze the minimum wage at $11.  This, they say, condemns many hard-working families to poverty which will affect their children's development.

Another issue is the identity of most poor people.  They are most often indigenous, as well as often female-led, newcomer or affected by disability.  Campaigners are calling on all levels of government to work together to focus on these communities and develop a plan to tackle these challenges. 

The cost of housing across the country, especially in our largest cities is beyond what many families can afford.  One in seven people using homeless shelters in Canada are children, and over 300,000 of these youngsters use food banks regularly. Campaign representatives say that they are impressed by the concern and commitment expressed by politicians in recent election campaigns about the severity of the child poverty issue, but haven't seen action to meet those promising words.

A final issue raised by Campaign 2000 is around transfers and taxation.  They call for improvements in federal and provincial family tax benefit programs.  They also call for an increase in financial transfers to support public spending on family benefits.  Canada's public spending on family benefits stands at 1.18% of GDP, compared to the OECD (most developed countries)'s average of 2.14%.  This was a criticism of Canada even back in Chretien's day when Canada sat at the top of the UN's Human Development Index, but ranked 20th in its anti-poverty programs.

The Manitoba campaign, which includes Winnipeg Harvest and the University of Manitoba's School of Social Work, has called upon the Premier and his government to unveil a plan, with a timeline and targets, to confront the gravity of family and child poverty.  A long-time leader in the national and provincial campaigns, Professor Sid Frankel of the U of  M, says that action is needed now - “A year is a long time in the life of a child.”  

Six other provinces also released reports along with the national one.  In the national report, Frankel says that the federal government must bring leadership to this issue.  Social programs, he says, are a patchwork quilt that needs organization and are often unevenly distributed and everywhere underfunded.  The National Coordinator for Campaign 2000 adds:  “Children's lives are at stake.”

These are not easy issues.  However, like a festering wound, not taking action only means things will get worse.  Improving the job market, raising incomes and finding solutions to longstanding social issues is in the interest of all Canadians, if we wish to live in a prosperous and peaceful country.

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s
The Marquis Project.

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