This House "seek(s) to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000".
- House of Commons resolution, November 24, 1989.
It was a laudable, if idealistic, goal.
In 1989, 1 in 7 Canadian children lived below the poverty line. A unanimous, all party resolution, however, set out to change that. Child poverty would be eliminated by the year 2000.
Twelve years on, the ratio stands at 1 in
5, or a 43 percent increase. In human terms, the difference translates into approximately 500,000 more children living in poverty.
Anti-poverty activists charge that the deterioration in conditions is a national disgrace and one of worst blights on Jean Chretien nine-year tenure as prime minister.
They are quick to point out that United Nations ratings aside, the problem of child poverty has gotten worse with every year Mr. Chretien has been in office.
"In my opinion, their record in fighting child poverty is poor, and they failed the public's expectation in this area miserably," says Liyu
Guo, a spokesperson for Campaign 2000, a leading anti-poverty organization in Toronto.
Determining the poverty line is a subjective and much debated issue. The right wing Fraser Institute states that about $15,000 for a family of four is all that is necessary for survival.
Statistics Canada does not gauge the level of poverty, however it does publish a set of measures called the low-income cut-offs
[LICOs], which are used as a rough interpretation of Canada's poverty lines.
The LICOs are based on numerous factors including the size of households, the city in which they live, and what they spend their income on. For example, in 1998---the last year for which StatsCan has data-the figure for a family of four living in city with a population over 500,000 is $33,063.
However, a family making more than that figure can still be considered poor. The average family spends 36 percent of their gross income on food, clothing and shelter. Should that figure rise 20 points, StatsCan considers the family in "straightened circumstances."
But one thing is certain in Canada. Despite years of economic boom, and Liberal Red Book promises the number of poor is up sharply.
So, what went wrong?
"When the Chretien government had the opportunity to spend more on social programs that would help children and families in poverty, they chose to cut taxes and reduce deficits," says
Guo. "They've made commitments in word but have not fulfilled their promise in action."
"The inaction demonstrates where the focus of the government is", says Linda
Lalonde, a vice-president of the National Anti-Poverty Organisation. "Clearly it is not on childcare."
"References to a "children's agenda" are sprinkled liberally through the Liberal's Red Book," says
Lalonde. "That means to me that there should be identifiable projects in place."
"Usually, when you say you have an agenda it means you are going to do A, B, C, D and E," she adds. "So far I've seen little or nothing advantageous being done for children in poverty."
There are more than 100 programs and services listed on the federal government's e-guide of services for Children and their Families.
Nowhere, however, is there any specific mention of programs that specifically target child poverty. The closest reference is a project called
Perfect', that offers what some critics say is patronizing child-rearing advice to low-income, single mothers.
The lack of a strategy highlights not only the government's inability to seriously tackle the root problem of poverty, they argue, but also the problem it faces articulating the most basic of its intentions.
A spokesman for Health Minister Anne McLellan defended Nobody's Perfect, saying, "It is one of many successful programs that have been expanded across Canada, and provides important information and assistance to parents and children in need."
"The Government of Canada has made significant investments in children and in ensuring they get the right start in life," he added.
Other department programs aimed at giving vulnerable children more opportunities in life, he said, include the Canada Prenatal Nutrition Program, the Aboriginal Head Start Program, and the Fetal Alcohol
Syndrome/Fetal Alcohol Effect initiative.
In 1989, when Parliamentarians first voted for the initiative, it was estimated it would cost $4.6 billion to lift Canada's children out of poverty. By 1998 anti-poverty activists had placed that amount closer to $12.7 billion.
Lalonde adds that the accrued costs of inaction do not include the long-term social impacts.
"Those children that were poor in 1989 are now young adults," she says. "Those coming behind them are facing a much more serious kind of poverty because government cut backs have dismantled the safety net that use to be there."
Anti-poverty activists say there is no shortage of ways the Chretien government could improve its record.
Campaign 2000 proposes that the federal government focus on three priority
areas to improve the lot of poor children:
… An enhanced Canada Child Tax Benefit.
In the December budget, Finance Minister Paul Martin said the federal government plans to increase the CCTB to a maximum of $2,372 by July 2002 growing to $2,514 by 2004. Campaign 2000 proposes a maximum benefit of $4,200 per child for all low and modest income families.
… The implementation of an affordable housing strategy.
Such a strategy should create 20,000 new affordable units each year, for 10 years, and the rehabilitation of 10,000 affordable units per year. To begin to realistically address the scope of the problem the federal government needs to immediately step up their current commitments of $170 million per year to at least $625 million per year over the next five years.
… The expansion of early childhood development services.
The federal investment in the Early Childhood Development Initiative
(ECDI) should be increased substantially to up to $2 billion per year with provinces as full partners in ensuring the development of a sustainable, accessible system for all families with quality child care as a cornerstone of the system.
Anti poverty organizations also emphasis the need for the federal government to consolidated the CCTB into a single program in cooperation with the provinces.
Under the present system most provincial governments consider the benefit "income" and claw it back from a recipient's welfare or disability cheque.
"What this does is punish kids on social assistance whose parents cannot find work," says
Lalonde. "The benefit should not be dependent on a family's source of income.
Lalonde and others argue that by extending the CCTB to all in need-regardless of whether a family lives on welfare or a minimum wage job--Canadian society benefits by having a more secure and socially stable youth.
Poverty alleviation falls largely under the jurisdiction of Human Resources Development Canada. Calls to HRDC Minister Jane Stewart were unreturned at the time of publication.
In his1999 Budget Speech, Martin boosted about paying down almost $20 billion on the national debt over a two-year period-the fruits of the Liberals' good financial stewardship and a booming economy.
Anti poverty activists point to this as proof that the government has the resources to truly tackle child poverty.
Finding the political will, however, appears to be a different story.