Friday, November 27, 2009
Look left, look right - you still end up with child poverty
If we devoted even a fraction of the time to ending poverty that we spend on debating whose statistics are right, we’d have been a nation of thriving citizens from coast to coast a long time ago.
Instead, we divide into ideological camps and bicker over the differences between “relative” and “absolute” poverty, and that’s as far as things ever go. It’s a good explanation for why we’re 20 years into a national commitment to end child poverty in Canada with no real end in sight.
The latest figures, released this week in First Call’s annual report card on child poverty in B.C., use relative poverty as the gauge.
That measurement, also known as the low-income cutoff (LICO), is based on what an “average” Canadian needs to spend for food, clothing and shelter and presumes relative poverty among those who have to spend significantly more. LICO is the favoured standard for those who want government to do more to support Canadians at the low end of the economic scale.
Those who like their governments lean and their taxes low tend to prefer measurements of absolute poverty, which use a much narrower definition of poverty. Such stats capture the people who aren’t just relatively poor, but in truly dire economic circumstance.
Those estimates generally come from a group like the Fraser Institute, a think tank that conservative politicians love. The organization has found a kindred spirit in Ontario economics professor Chris Sarlo, who for the last several years has issued his own annual poverty report on behalf of the institute.
As you can imagine, there’s a big difference between the two styles of measurement. Who to believe? Unfortunately, that question ends up dominating the debate whenever the conversation turns to the number of impoverished Canadians. But run the numbers and it turns out that B.C.’s child poverty rate is on the rise no matter whose version you buy into.
For argument’s sake, let’s use the most conservative measure of poverty to gauge whether B.C. really does have a child-poverty issue.
The First Call report, using LICO, found B.C. had the highest child-poverty rate in Canada for the sixth year in a row, at 18.8 per cent. Sarlo would be more likely to estimate the rate at around five or six per cent. We can all fight later over who we think is more right, but for now let’s just look at child poverty in the province using Sarlo’s method.
Sarlo contends that the correct income measurement for absolute poverty in Canada is $10,520 for an individual. For a household of four, it’s $23,307.
Are there B.C. children growing up in families that earn that little? Absolutely. The 35,000 or so children whose families are on income assistance quickly come to mind.
A four-person family with both parents on income assistance lives on $17,088 a year even after the family bonus is factored in. That’s 27 per cent less than the amount that even the most conservative voices out there consider to be poverty.
The number of children living in welfare-dependent families grew by more than 20 per cent in B.C. in the last year. That figure is higher than it has been since 2004, meaning B.C. has seen an increase in child poverty these past five years no matter which way you measure it.
In fact, one in 10 Canadian families has annual household incomes under $25,000. More than 100,000 single-parent families get by on less than $20,000 a year. A single parent with two children working for $12 an hour, 35 hours a week, essentially meets Sarlo’s definition of absolute poverty.
So now we know: However you analyse it, hundreds of thousands of Canadians - and tens of thousands of B.C. children - are living in poverty. What say we put ideological differences aside once and for all and get to work doing something about that?
The Fraser Institute and others of similar leanings rightly note that Canada’s overall poverty rate has dropped considerably over the past three decades. But in my opinion that will most definitely change if those from the school of lean and mean don’t soon get a grip on what they’re doing to Canada.
Poverty rates have fallen over time because Canada introduced all kinds of social supports to make that happen. Both our provincial and federal governments are busy dismantling that support structure right now. We’ll be back to the poverty rates of old in no time.
We’re a wealthy country with a rich history of doing the right thing. There’s no excuse for poverty in Canada.