Charity is not enough: ending child poverty in Canada

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91,000 paper dolls: one for every child living in poverty in Alberta. Made out of anything that came to hand—magazines, construction paper, cardboard coffee cups—they were collected and brought to a rally on the steps of the provincial legislature (15 degrees below zero!) by over 100 members of the Alberta Child Well-Being Initiative on November 20, Universal Children’s Day.

This was the latest manifestation of a creative initiative, started by United Church Women, that’s been going since 2007 with the motto “Charity is not enough”: they’re pushing for legislative changes including a higher minimum wage, affordable housing and daycare, breakfast and lunch programs, and a poverty elimination strategy in one of only three provinces (the others are B.C. and Saskatchewan) without a strategy in place.

In Etobicoke, Universal Children’s Day was honoured with a panel discussion called “Fresh Ideas: Children and Youth” attended by over 100 college students, teachers, and community members. It was co-organized by the Humber College International Development Program and Save the Children Canada, as part of a longer event focused on innovation and creativity in development initiatives.

Three speakers focused on the international context, including children’s rights, international aid, and the Millennium Development Goals. I challenged people to think about what’s also happening in Canada: although Canada is a wealthy country in the Global North, we’re still not making the grade when it comes to children’s rights.

And Campaign 2000—so named for the House of Commons’ unanimous commitment in 1989 to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000—released its annual report card, detailing why we need a comprehensive plan to end child poverty.

Voices everywhere are calling for change: what are they saying?

Children living in poverty say

  • I’m 8. Other kids won’t play with me because I smell bad.
  • I’m 10. I hate lunch hour because my lunches aren’t like the other kids.
  • I’m 9. I get in trouble at school because I steal food from other kids.
  • I’m 15. My grandma is a dealer.
  • I’m 5. I got sick last week but I had to go to school anyway or mom would lose her job.

(From paper dolls sent in by a child support worker in Alberta.)

A single mom in Mississauga says

  • If you need subsidized housing in Toronto you need to wait 10 years, unless you’re in a state of crisis. Waiting that long and watching your children grow up is exhausting.
  • The food bank is only open during the day: I can’t get to it because I work. I have enough to give my teenage son one glass of juice, but not two.
  • Health care is only partial: it doesn’t extend to teeth and eye care.
  • Low minimum wage and lack of government support means working all the time: I’m missing my children’s childhood and can’t enjoy being with them.

The United Nations says

In October the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child completed a review of how Canada is doing on children’s rights overall. Amid the scores of specific changes it calls for are some directly related to child poverty:

  • Establish annual targets to reduce child poverty.
  • Increase child welfare support given to Aboriginal people to balance that given to others.
  • Abolish the use of user fees in compulsory education.
  • Ensure disabled children have all the supports they need and aren’t forced into segregated schooling.
  • Provide adequate and culturally appropriate support to teenage mothers.
  • Assess how recent reductions in social tax/benefit plans, such as provinces and territories deducting income from the National Child Benefit Scheme from social assistance, have affected people in poverty.

Dignity for All, co-led by Citizens for Public Justice, says

DfA has two key recommendations:

  • Increase the National Child Benefit Supplement for low income families from $3,500 or less per child to $5,400 per child per year, and adjust this every year to the cost of living.
  • Some benefits, such as the Universal Child Care Benefit, go to all families, regardless of need. We think instead the government should invest the money in creating affordable child care programs, and in the National Child Benefit which goes primarily to low income families. Benefits should be progressive, and target those who need them most.

These voices—and many, many more—are calling for fundamental changes to take place. It’s clear that we have the resources to make things better for children, as we have for seniors. And it’s true that the overall child poverty rate has been halved since 1996 (in part because of improvements in federal child benefits that year) and that other improvements have happened, as we describe in our recent Poverty Trends Scorecard—Canada 2012.

But 8.2 percent of Canadian children living in poverty is still too many, and we’ve collectively failed to live up to our promise to end child poverty by the year 2000. Let’s make some improvements before Universal Children’s Day rolls around next November.

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