Now Family Day’s over, let’s see real action on family poverty in B.C.
When MP James Moore asked a Vancouver reporter whether governments have an obligation to ensure kids don’t go to school hungry, his comments were rightly criticized by Canadians across the country as callous and cruel.
They were also incorrect; the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as international human rights treaties that Canada has committed to uphold, require governments to protect our rights to equality, life, and security of the person, and to do everything they can to ensure an adequate standard of living for all.
When Moore added that Canada has never been wealthier as a country than we are right now, he unintentionally underlined the vast inequality that exists in our society. Our governments have failed to ensure that our nation’s great wealth results in, at the very least, students arriving at school with nourishing food in their bellies, ready and able to learn.
It’s worth considering the way inequality plays out for B.C. families. B.C.’s abysmal child poverty rates—among the worst in the country for a decade—mean that one out of every five children in B.C. is living in poverty. That’s 153,000 kids—enough to fill the stands at a Canucks game eight times over. Certain families are hit especially hard. First Nations, immigrant, and racialized families, as well as families with children with disabilities, tend to be especially poor. Astoundingly, half of all children living in families headed by single mothers are poor, the highest rate for any family type in the province. Single mothers and their children live an average of $9,000 below the poverty line.
Poverty among single mother-headed families arises from a number of factors, not least of which is the difficulty single moms face finding quality, affordable child care that allows them to sustain paid employment. Though they need a full-time income to support their families, many single mothers are forced to work part-time due to the lack of available or affordable child care spaces. Additionally, Canadian studies show that women’s hourly wages are still lower than men’s, and that women with children earn less over time than childless women, particularly if they are single. These realities for working moms—and the impacts on their children—underline the need for policies that better support working families, including lone parents, and the need to reduce gender inequality in paid work.
One policy that actively undermines parents’ ability to support their children is the clawback of child support payments. When a single parent on social assistance receives child support from the child’s other parent, the government takes that money away from the child, clawing back the entire amount from the family’s social assistance cheque. Canadian law says that child support is the right of the child, not the parent. However, the provincial government is depriving children of their right to support and essentially pocketing money intended for some of the most vulnerable children in the province.
Social assistance rates in B.C. are already incredibly low and haven’t risen since 2007, despite the rising cost of living. As a result, families on welfare struggle to survive on incomes that are well below the poverty line. Tens of thousands of B.C. families are forced to rely on food banks and other forms of charity to feed and clothe their children. Yet food banks struggle to meet their communities’ need for healthy and nutritious food, nearly 13 percent of British Columbians experience food insecurity, and teachers are dipping into their own pockets to ensure students have at least something to eat during the school day.
Vast amounts of research demonstrate the toxic role poverty plays in undermining healthy childhood development, as well as the huge additional costs in health care, education, the justice system and lost productivity we are already paying by allowing poverty rates to remain so high. We all do better when families are supported to provide a healthy and nourishing environment for children.
Most British Columbians don’t share Moore’s dismissive view that we have no collective responsibility for the well-being of our communities’ children. Eighty percent of British Columbians agree that the widening income gap is a serious problem for Canada that will have long-term consequences for society, and 87 percent think the premier and prime minister should set concrete targets and timelines for reducing poverty.
Yet, despite having the highest poverty rate in Canada, B.C. is now one of only two provinces left without a poverty reduction plan. Now Family Day’s over, we need real action on family poverty.