25 years ago, Canada adopted the United Nations Convention on the Right of the Child. Among the rights enumerated in that Convention, children have a right: to learn, to play, to nutritional food, to a home.
And, yesterday marked 27 years since the Canadian House of Commons unanimously passed a resolution to end child poverty by the year 2000. We are on our second generation of children whose basic rights should have been protected. Instead, their rights continue to be violated as they suffer under the effects of poverty with rates higher now than they were in 1989.
Child poverty is family poverty. Child poverty statistics report on the number and percentage of children that live in families with income below a particular income threshold. Thus, child poverty does not exist outside of family poverty.
Child and family poverty is a social problem rooted in structures of inequality both economic and political. It is primarily measured by examining economic factors related to family income, either by comparing the incomes of Canadians, or in comparing incomes to the cost of necessities for daily living.
Poverty is not just a measure of income however; it is social condition that manifests in a multitude of ways in daily family life and is experienced by parents and children. Those numbers represent real people. Parents struggle to make school lunches, pay for school supplies and fees throughout the year, support their children in activities and sports, and to buy winter coats and boots. It is difficult for many to keep vehicles in working order, afford the minimum delivery of home heating oil, or pay childcare fees (even with subsidies). After paying housing costs, there is little money left over for food. These daily struggles lead to social exclusion, high levels of stress, and negative health outcomes for both parents and children.
The cost of poverty for society is significant. Income, housing, and food security are essential for social wellbeing and social and economic prosperity. How we address (or do not address) these needs through social welfare programs and economic and labour policies are political decisions entrenched with beliefs about what is best for the economy and thus best for society. This means that public policy itself can be a root cause of poverty.
Child poverty rates mirror Canada’s weakening commitment to social welfare more broadly—typified by a reduction in social expenditures in the 1970s, a steady erosion of social programs in the 1980s, and a persistent dismantling of Canada’s social welfare system from the 1990s onward. They also mirror growing inequality in family income and wealth.
To address family poverty we need to also address why certain individuals are more vulnerable to living in poverty, including women and those who are racialized, indigenous, differently-abled, and have newly immigrated to Canada. Unless our governments address the broader structures of inequality, we are not likely to see progress for our most vulnerable children.
Child poverty rates in Nova Scotia and across Canada have fluctuated over the years since the 1989 resolution, but the goal was never achieved. The 2016 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia revealed that, according to the most recent data (2014), the child poverty rate is 24.3% higher than it was in 1989, the year this resolution was passed to eliminate it. In 2014, 22.5% of Nova Scotian children were living in families with incomes below the After-Tax Low Income Measure (AT-LIM). This means that 37,450 children or more than 1 in 5 children in Nova Scotia were living in poverty. There was no change in the child poverty rate in Nova Scotia since the 2015 report card.
For the first time the report card was able to report data for more and smaller geographic areas in the province. Child poverty rates range from as low as 5% in Hammonds Plains to as high are 75.6% in Eskasoni. Six communities have child poverty rate over 30%--five in Cape Breton (Glace Bay, New Waterford, North Sydney, Sydney Mines, and Eskasoni) and the other in Yarmouth (41.8%).
This year’s report card also shows that poverty rates vary depending on the family make-up, with families who have young children and lone parent families facing higher poverty rates than other families. For children under 6 in Nova Scotia, the child poverty rate was 27%, compared to 22.5% of all children. For lone parents, 50.4% lived below the AT-LIM (24, 230 children) compared with 11.2% of children living in couple families (13, 230 children).
Children in families that depend on welfare are particularly vulnerable to poverty. Total welfare incomes in Nova Scotia have remained virtually flat since 1989 and are far below the poverty line.
What can be done?
The NS Minister for Community Services’ response to the report was that the “numbers are out of date and misleading” because the data is from 2014 and she claims that much progress has been made since then.
The only significant change since 2014 that may actually lift some families up out of poverty is the federal government’s Canada Child Benefit. Similar cash transfers have been effective in lowering child poverty in the past (child poverty in NS would be 32.5% if not for government transfers).
It is notable that likely only a quarter of those children currently living in poverty will be lifted out of poverty according to the federal government’s own estimate of the impact of the CCB (which is also not indexed to inflation until 2020). Our goal is to hold governments to account until child poverty is eliminated, by using the most recent data (which is from 2014 as we clearly stated) to track what is happening.
We hope we do see significant progress in the years ahead. However, if we do, the NS government can claim very little credit because their changes have only helped a few more families to manage the burden of living in poverty a tiny bit better. Unfortunately, given the depth of poverty—that is how far below the poverty line families are in Nova Scotia, we know too many families will continue to struggle and thousands of children will remain in poverty, while others may fall back into it. Indeed, the 2016 Hunger Counts Report should be an alarm bell for the Minister because Nova Scotia experienced the highest increase in numbers of people served from 2015-2016 (20.9% increase) for any province in Canada—30.4% of users being children.
This was truly a missed opportunity for the NS government to make a bold statement, for example, to pledge to end child poverty by the year 2020. Instead, our provincial government is content to wait and see if the data will show much poverty has been reduced.
We don't need to wait for the next report card to know that much more federal and provincial investment in families and children is needed to prevent child and family poverty, and reverse the damage of steady chipping away of collective responsible for their well-being. Now.
Lesley Frank, is the author of the NS Child and Family Poverty Report Card, and is Associate Professor of Sociology at Acadia University, as well as Research Associate, CCPA-NS. Christine Saulnier is the Nova Scotia Director for the CCPA.