Too many children still live in poverty

Lana Payne
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Next year will mark the two-decade anniversary of an all-party House of Commons commitment to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.
Since then, Canada has experienced massive economic expansion, outgrowing many industrialized countries. By all accounts, Canada is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet 12 per cent of our children live in poverty.
In addition, the federal government has posted more than a decade of consecutive surpluses. Corporate profits are at record highs and so are the tax cuts governments have been dishing out to them, both federally and provincially.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives have handed out more than $200 billion in tax cuts since coming to power in January 2006 - a dangerous obsession that will surely impair our country's future ability to do what is needed in the public interest.
And yet despite the wealth and the huge surpluses, Canada's child poverty rate remains unchanged in nearly 20 years. Lots of folks and their kids are just not getting their share of the economic pie.
Instead, they struggle in the land of plenty.
A recent study by Statistics Canada, published in its latest report, "Perspective on Labour and Income," noted the proportion of children living in a low-income family is virtually the same as it was in 1989 when Canadian parliamentarians promised to end poverty for children, thus ending it for their parents.
What the study also found was that when you consider all the wealth Canada has, lifting families with children out of poverty wouldn't cost that much by comparison. And yet the federal government has no plan to deal with poverty. It isn't even on the Harper government's radar despite the great work by groups like Campaign 2000, the National Anti-Poverty Organization (NAPO) and other national, provincial and local anti-poverty groups.

Helping hand
The Statistics Canada report noted that $3.3 billion in earned incomes or transfers would have brought families with children above the agency's low-income cutoffs.
That's just one-fifth of the Harper government $15-billion corporate tax cut in October 2007 - which mostly benefited rich corporations, like those in the oil and gas sector.
And it is peanuts when compared to the more than $200 billion in tax cuts the Harper government has passed out.
On average, low-income families had about $21,400 in income after taxes. They would have needed another $8,000 a year not to be considered low income.
Almost half of low-income kids "lived in a situation that could be considered fairly severe, since their family's income was below 75 per cent" of the after-tax, low-income cutoff.
Not surprisingly, the Statistics Canada research shows that having a job was no protection against poverty. Just as clear is that a booming economy does not benefit everyone.
More than 40 per cent of children living in low-income families had at least one parent who declared a significant amount of work effort. In other words, they had at least 910 hours of paid work in a year. In fact, more than 20 per cent of the kids lived in families where both parents had jobs.
For these families and too many others, work is definitely not working for them. They are more likely to have precarious, non-standard, non-union jobs. They are very likely to earn under $10 an hour, with no benefits like a health plan.
Unions do make a difference. They certainly aim to force the labour market to deliver fairness and equity. But as union density declines throughout our province and the country, it will get tougher to force economic justice out of the economy and the labour market.
Governments have a role to play here. In Newfoundland and Labrador. For example, provincial labour laws are obsolete and need modernizing. They make union organizing extremely difficult and are a hangover from the Clyde Wells days of government. The world has changed dramatically since the early 1990s and our labour laws need to change, too.
Unions can do a lot to help the Newfoundland and Labrador government deliver on its poverty-reduction agenda, but it's tough when their hands are tied by draconian legislation.
It's no coincidence that countries with high unionization rates also have the lowest poverty rates.
Unions help get the economic pie shared. And, given half a chance, they can make a dent in our persistent incidence of low income among working people.
It was the union movement, in conjunction with its social partners, that convinced the Williams government that it needed to get the minimum wage in the province to $10 an hour. Last week, the minister responsible for human resources, labour and employment, Shawn Skinner, announced the government's schedule of increases for the minimum wage over the next two years.
This did not come without considerable resistance from some business corners.
But at least the government acted to lift the wage floor. The message here should be clear. Newfoundland and Labrador is no longer a low-wage economy.
That is not how we can or should be selling ourselves to the rest of the world.
We have so much more going for us. In fact, we always did. What's sad is that it has taken so long for those with power to see it.

Lana Payne is a former journalist who is active in the labour movement. She can be reached by e-mail at column returns July 20.

Organizations: Statistics Canada, House of Commons, National Anti-Poverty Organization

Geographic location: Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador

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