BC can beat poverty, if we want it
This week, Firstcall released its annual child poverty report card and the results aren’t encouraging.
For the eighth year running, BC has the highest after tax child poverty rate in the country. But the real tragedy is not that every other province in the country continues to do a relatively better job than us at combating child poverty but rather that, after a downward trend that lasted several years, the absolute numbers of poor children in BC has once again started to climb.
In 2009 (the last year for which comprehensive stats are available), BC’s child poverty rate climbed back up to 16.4 percent, while the national rate fell slightly to 14 percent. To contextualize that statistic, BC has about 137,000 poor children – roughly the total populations of Kamloops, Fort St. John, Port Alberni and Powell River combined.
Perhaps more important that the rate of poverty is the depth of poverty facing BC’s most vulnerable children. Some families are raising their children on incomes that are approximately half of what they would need just to hit the poverty line.
Another troubling but not unexpected finding in this year’s report card is that rates of poverty are highest during the most important development phase of children’s lives. In 2009, BC children under six had a poverty rate of 20.2 percent. The Human Early Learning Partnership at the University of British Columbia is showing increasing developmental vulnerability for the province’s children upon school entry. You don’t have to be a child psychologist or a pediatrician to understand that high rates of deep poverty during the early years are detrimental to the longterm well-being of our children, our communities or our province.
All of that takes me to the core issue. In our work at Pivot, it is impossible to overlook the direct relationship between extreme and persistent poverty and so many of the issues we are trying to tackle. Having worked for many years on our child welfare and violence against women campaigns, I see the direct impact that poverty has on the health and safety of women and their children. Until we address this basic issue we cannot effectively support families or empower women to assert their right to a life free from violence.
So what can be done?
First, we have to acknowledge that children in BC aren’t growing up in a context of scarcity, they are growing up in a context of inequality. It is no coincidence that along with having the highest child poverty rate, BC is also the most unequal province in the country. And the gap between rich and poor families is growing at an astounding rate.
In 1989, the income of the richest 10% of families was 9.2 times that of the poorest 10%. Today,the richest 10% of families have 13.5 times the income of the poorest. In the course of twenty years, the annual income of those near the bottom of the income scale have actually decreased. The incomes of families that make up the middle 10% of the income distribution have increased by only $4,870 while annual income of the richest 10% of families has increased by $89,118.*
We also have address the reality that children are poor because their families are poor. And Firstcall makes it clear that the answer is not simply that their parents need to “get a job” given that 48% of children living in poverty in BC have at least one parent in the full time workforce. We also need to recognize that poverty does, in fact, discriminate. The child poverty rate in families that immigrated to Canada between 2001 and 2006 was an astoundingly 49.6 percent. The rates in other immigrant families are also unacceptably high. This is the case even though in 2010 only 0.7 percent of the immigrant population was on welfare, significantly lower that percent of non-immigrant families on assistance.
Fortunately, we do know that wise social policy choices and a little bit of long-range planning can make a real difference. One of the reasons that BC has been relatively unsuccessful in terms of reducing child poverty is that we don’t have a plan. It’s hard to get where you are want to go without a road map. Now, there is an opportunity for us to join the seven other provinces with official anti-poverty plans. Shane Simpson, NDP MLA for Vancouver Hastings has introduced a bill entitled the Poverty Reduction Act that would commit the province to adopt a full-fledged poverty reduction plan within a year. The bill calls for the plan to include specific legislated targets and timelines for reducing poverty.
Adopting a meaningful poverty reduction strategy is not just about doing the right things- it is also about doing the fiscally prudent thing. This year, the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives calculated that poverty costs BC between $8.1 billion and $9.2 billion annually. They also found that alleviating poverty would cost less half that amount.
We can end poverty, and in the process unleash the potential of tens of thousands of BC children, create safer communities and save money for taxpayers, but to get there, we have to want it, we have to set a course and we have to follow through.
*all incomes reported in constant 2009 dollars