Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A roundup of the usual child-poverty suspects

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Some of those who hear Canada has the 12th-highest child poverty rate among 35 advanced industrial economies in a UNICEF report released last month will think that is a pretty good position to be in.

But Estonia, Slovakia and Malta do better than Canada, not to mention the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland, whose economies have taken such a battering.

Some will question the validity of the relative measure of poverty (poverty line set at family income adjusted for size and composition at less than half of national median income after tax) and argue it indicates the relative position of the household: inequality, but not poverty.

They equate poverty only with homelessness, starvation and the inability to buy adequate clothing. Food insecurity and homelessness are far too common among Canadian children, but four decades of research have demonstrated the very real negative developmental, lifelong health and educational effects of relative poverty in childhood.

Poverty is about more than material deprivation. It also involves exclusion from participating in many aspects of society and considerable stress.

Beyond this, it is important to note that most Canadian children living in poverty are living far below this relative poverty line. UNICEF points out the median income of the families of children living in poverty is only 21.4 per cent of the median income of all families of similar size and composition.

Some will argue that a relative poverty line can never demonstrate change because a fixed proportion of children will live at an income level below one-half the median income. But this is simply untrue. For example, between 2000 and 2010, the child poverty rate in the United Kingdom went down by 3.3 percentage points (from 15.4 per cent to 12.1 per cent) using this relative measure. The United Kingdom used to have a higher child poverty rate than Canada but now has a lower one.

Some will argue child poverty is just an issue for bleeding hearts and poverty among children does not affect the rest of Canadians. While there is a strong moral argument to do something about child poverty (after all, children do not create their own poverty), there is just as strong an economic argument.

For example, the recent release of census data has triggered concern in Western Canada about labour shortages. These shortages can be partially managed through internal migration from Eastern Canada and international migration; but reducing child poverty is a good strategy for raising the number of skilled workers. This is because child poverty leads to poorer educational outcomes from kindergarten to post-secondary education. Reducing child poverty will increase the number of skilled workers available.

Beyond this, poverty produces real economic costs. One way this happens is through producing poor health. Poverty is a powerful determinant of health, and we must all bear the cost of treating illness throughout the life cycle produced by child poverty.

Child poverty also plays a significant role in producing crime among young adults. So, reducing childhood poverty is both an important health promotion and an important crime-control strategy.

Our governments tend to ignore the economic benefits and argue the costs of poverty reduction are too high. That is bad economics.

Finally, some will argue child poverty is not a social problem, but simply the result of parents who chose not to work. This might be true for some; just as some upper-income Canadians choose to engage in income tax fraud. But in Manitoba, almost 47 per cent of poor children live in families in which at least one parent works full-time for the full year. Therefore, a great deal of child poverty is created in the labour market and not by exclusion from it. Beyond this, some parents suffer from illnesses or are limited by disabilities or cannot find child care.

So when we put ideology aside, the evidence shows child poverty is a significant social problem in Canada that we should do something about because the cost of doing nothing is simply too high.

What should we do? First, we should ask our federal government to acknowledge poverty reduction is its business and to quit sloughing its responsibility for economic management, crime control and human rights. The federal government should be putting forward a poverty-reduction plan.

Our provincial government announced its All Aboard poverty reduction strategy in 2009. But it has not established targets and timelines, so we have no way of measuring its success. We should press Premier Greg Selinger to place his government in the position of being accountable on this strategy.

Sid Frankel is a member of the board of the Social Planning Council of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2012 A10

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