Nine hundred and sixty-seven thousand; 15.1 per cent.
Meaningless quantities except that they represent the number and percentage of children in Canada who live in a state of poverty.
Imagine — looking onto a school’s playground and letting it register in your heart and mind that one out of every seven children you see are living in poverty. According to the Conference Board of Canada, of 17 countries studied in 2013, only the United States had a worst record regarding child poverty.
In 1989, the child poverty rate was 13.7 per cent. In 1989, our House of Commons unanimously approved the intention, maybe even a promise, to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000. It was a declaration of war on child poverty. But, as someone has commented on the United States’ “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, it was, and continues to be, a war to which no one came.
By the year 2000, the child poverty rate had crept up to 14.3 per cent. Fourteen years later, it is still going up.
When one examines the landscape of programs and strategies, initiated over the past years, to deal with child poverty, only two seem to stand out: the breakfast/luncheon program for children who come to school hungry, and the food banks programs for families and individuals. Both are supported by generous donations and volunteers. Both have experienced tremendous growth in the past few years, surely envied by any proponent of free-market entrepreneurship.
As for governments, they have tinkered at the margins, at best, or walked away from their responsibilities at worst. Federal Industry Minister James Moore’s comment may exemplify government’s attitude toward child poverty and its attending symptom — hunger — when he asked and answered “Is it my job to feed my neighbour’s child? I don’t think so.” (“Moore’s Way Leaves Kids Hungry,” Regional Viewpoint, Brandon Sun, Dec. 18, 2013). It would be horrific if this attitude represents the attitudes of Canadians.
Moore is reported to have argued that “responsibility for feeding children should rest with parents rather than schools, and that the role of government was to empower parents to do so.” And there lies the problem. One can quite confidently argue that behind every child in poverty there is a family in poverty. To deal with child poverty, then, means to deal with family poverty. Even assuming that one can put a “face” to what it means to empower parents, dealing with child poverty means a substantial intervention to raise families out of poverty.
It is estimated that the cost of poverty to the Canadian economy is between $72 billion and $86 billion per year. Yes, those are billions of dollars. These costs represent costs to the health system, welfare system, criminal justice system, lost productivity in sick days, lost productivity in training workers, lost potential productivity due to low education and training. Just with respect to savings in health expenditures, some have argued that moving people from the lowest to the second lowest income bracket would result in savings of $7.6 billion per year to the health system.
To this can be added the loss in realizing the economic potential of the Canadian economy. Our current economic policy is to reduce taxes in order to promote job creation. Reality appears to be different. The lack of investment by industry, while sitting on in excess of $500 billion in tax savings, is attributed to the lack of consumer demand for goods. Placing more money into the hands of the consumer, particularly the poor who will spend 100 per cent of any new-found income, will increase demand for goods and services and motivate industry to invest in more production — which translates into more jobs.
Even though the above scenario may be somewhat exaggerated it presents an argument that is increasingly being voiced by economists and politicians, no matter how muted that voice may be. That argument being to implement a program which guarantees each individual and family a minimum level of income adequate to live in dignity and free from want for the necessities of life, sometimes referenced as a ‘living wage.’
The concept is simple and has its seeming logic. However, simplicity and logic never seem to be the criteria used in making public policy decisions. Or rather it should be said that there are differing premises, which are not always apparent, from which applied logic results in different choices.
Our performance to date reflects the difficulties that society has in defining what we mean by the term “human being” and the related question of whether, under what conditions, and to what extent any human being has any responsibility for or accountability to another human being. The, at present, array of programs and services, be they private, public, or volunteer based is indicative of our reluctance to make a clear statement regarding this responsibility. The default is to sit on both sides of the issue, with no salvation for those living in poverty.
Nor are we clear on who is subsidizing whom when it comes to defining a policy directed at lifting families and individuals out of poverty. A guaranteed income, equivalent to a ‘living wage,’ is subsidizing the individual. Or is it?
From another perspective, it is the employer that cannot pay a “living wage” who is being subsidized. In the absence of a “living wage,” it is the worker earning anything under a “living wage” who is essentially subsidizing the employer — at a high cost — poverty for her/him-self and her/his family. Therefore, the issue in essence comes down to a question of who should subsidize the employer, the worker or society (which includes employers). Unless, of course, society wishes to establish a “living wage” as the minimum wage for any employer.
Any strategy will require all Canadians to come to grips with the question of who pays. The poor have the (not enviable) advantage of not having to pay for it. For the rest of us, some will be willing to pay as long as their contribution is fair. Some will make every argument and take every opportunity to avoid paying. The latter will find financial comfort and gain in passing solutions onto others (including the poor).
Any strategy will need to address the reality that there is no money to be made from being poor. It appears, however, that money can be made from poverty, that is, from the poor. Governments can reduce taxes for the wealthy and their corporations at the cost of keeping people in poverty. Employers can derive the advantage of enriched profits by paying workers at the lowest or minimal levels. Maybe this is why society is so ready to embrace — what, the truism, the decree? — that the poor will always be with us.
Nine hundred and sixty-seven thousand children and their respective families are not patiently waiting for the rest of society to alleviate their situation. They have no political power and very few supporters.
They probably have little hope that their future will be any better. They probably have dreams, which may be better characterized as fantasies, of a better life. Their poverty is a prescription for an unhealthy life — physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually. A prescription that we are writing and rewriting every day.
» Chester and Rosemarie Letkeman are both retired from federal public service and are longtime Brandon residents. They are both interested in public policy, but have no political affiliation. Their column runs monthly.