New tactics in an old fight [child poverty]

TheStar.com – opinion/editorials
Published On Sat Nov 26 2011.

Despite promises, plans and new programs, Canada has made depressingly little headway in its 22-year fight to do away with child poverty.

Campaign 2000, the long-standing champion of the country’s poor kids, has just issued its latest report card: One of out every 10 Canadian children still lives in poverty. Children constitute 40 per cent of food bank users. Children and their mothers are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.

The news is not unremittingly bleak. The child poverty rate has gone down — from 11.9 per cent in 1989 when Parliament passed an all-party resolution pledging to eliminate child poverty by the turn of the millennium, to 9.5 per cent in 2009.

But most of the drop is due to economic growth. Until the global recession hit in 2008, Canada enjoyed a period of strong expansion and job creation. Ottawa and the provinces chalked up a healthy string of budget surpluses.

Policy improvements reinforced these gains. The National Child Benefit, the federal working income tax credit and Ontario’s child benefit helped to ease the plight of low-income parents. What’s still missing are the two things that struggling parents need most:

Affordable housing: Many can’t provide their children with basic necessities because rent eats up so much of their income.

Affordable child care: Single mothers can’t work without a safe place to leave their children. Without a paycheque, they have little hope of lifting their families out of poverty.

Three prime ministers — Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin — vowed to tackle these challenges, but little came of their efforts. They either couldn’t muster the will to act or couldn’t win parliamentary and provincial support to implement their plans.

The current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is ideologically opposed to “institutional child care.” But he’s open to splitting the cost of housing with the provinces. Unfortunately, the take-up, especially in Ontario, has been disappointing.

With the economy now losing steam and all three levels of government retrenching, there is a serious risk of backsliding.

It will take more than Campaign 2000’s ambitious targets — it is now calling for a 50 per cent reduction in child poverty by 2020 — and recommendations that politicians have repeatedly rejected to prevent that from happening.

What’s needed are short-term, achievable goals, buttressed by credible proposals. That would at least give governments an incentive to pay attention.

Despite today’s strong economic headwinds, progress is possible. But it will take resourcefulness, pragmatism and a few small victories to rekindle the belief that Canada can do better.

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