Noel Herron and Marcy Toms: Rising child poverty in B.C. raises many unanswered questions

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      By Noel Herron and Marcy Toms

      Next week, the Coalition of Progressive Electors will hold a daylong conference—Justice, Not Charity—to discuss the collapse of the Vancouver school board’s Inner City Schools Project and the allied impact of creeping corporatization on Vancouver schools. Nearly 25 years ago, responding to the growing alarm of inner-city elementary-school educators about the deplorable state of education in their schools, immediate action by VSB trustees created the innovative, broadly-based project.

      Fast forward to the present, and frequent heart-wrenching stories about the shocking situation of kids in inner-city classes point not only to the failure of the VSB project, but also to the deepening crisis of child poverty. These stories attract great media attention, and the Vancouver Sun has run a series documenting the ravages of poverty on children, families, and schools throughout the Lower Mainland. This, in turn, sees the newspaper launch its Adopt-a-School initiative to help struggling schools. Private citizens and corporate donors descend on schools with food, clothing, and cash.

      Despite the heart-warming community response to urgent food security and educational needs in Vancouver, troubling questions and unaddressed issues remain.

      For how long will inner-city schools be forced to rely on the efforts of parents, teachers, reporters, and charitable organizations to meet basic needs? Is it defensible educational practice for inner-city parents and teachers to spend time and energy fundraising? Local parent activist Gwen Giesbrecht calls this “supplemental funding”, because it attempts to fill the gaps caused by provincial cutbacks. Is this practice random, arbitrary, and unfair, as critics claim? Is the dramatic 30 percent increase in funding for one year from Breakfast for Learning (a national nonprofit organization) to support 249 schools across B.C. a troubling trend? Are people aware of the “backpack program” in some Vancouver elementary schools and that the food in these packs takes only some of the bite out of children’s hunger on weekends? What will happen in schools when funders are unable or unwilling to continue their work?

      At the federal level, new cuts contained in the controversial 425-page omnibus bill will have a devastating impact on the award-winning Red Fox Healthy Living Society, whose special programs serve 200 aboriginal youth in Vancouver and also reach kids in 10 East Vancouver schools and community centres. Is this sensible public policy?

      The upcoming November 3 COPE conference at the Peretz Centre (6184 Ash Street) will be the sixth consecutive public event in a six-month span to address the issue of child and family poverty in this city. So, why the ongoing public concern about this topic?

      The persistence of child poverty in one Canada’s most prosperous provinces and cities alarms and deeply troubles many people. Ironically, B.C. is a leader both in high housing costs and in incidences of child poverty. Are British Columbians content with the fact that we live in a province where 87,000 children are poor?

      The issue of inequality and widening family income gaps across this country ought to be one of pressing concern to Canadians. Anti-poverty coordinators Laurel Rothman and Cheryl Mixon, commenting on the impact of this topic, note: “Canada’s high level of poverty not only affects the country’s fiscal bottom line and economic health over the long term, but also jeopardizes social solidarity.” Poor children live in poor families, and these families need help. In June, Statistics Canada reported that B.C. had 510,000 individuals living in poverty, the highest number in Canada. Clearly, comprehensive and meaningful municipal, provincial, and federal family policies are needed to address this escalating national issue.

      This summer’s fresh food coupon program announced by former B.C. Health Minister Mike de Jong had limited distribution and reached only a small portion of the targeted low-income families, according to the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition’s Trish Garner. Similarly, an earlier announcement of seven poverty pilots in municipalities across B.C. by former minister of children and family development Mary McNeil is long on promises and short on delivery. It will not fully kick in until 2014! Contrast this piecemeal approach with the fact that seven Canadian provinces have official poverty-reduction plans, either in place or in development. The B.C. government should assume the task of funding breakfast programs as a core responsibility. As well, the province’s per pupil allotment should cover all instructional needs, including supplementary funding for playground equipment and upkeep. Schools should not have to resort either to fundraising frenzies or to individual and corporate donors to function.

      Charity is admirable but it is no way to fund a public-school system over the long term. In a province as prosperous as B.C. and a country as affluent as Canada, all children and youth should have every opportunity to lead healthy and productive lives.

      Noel Herron is a former school principal and COPE school trustee, and the author of “Every Kid Counts”, a history of inner-city schools in Vancouver. Marcy Toms is a former secondary-school teacher and community activist. They are both members of the Justice, Not Charity conference organizing committee.

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      11 Comments

      Julia MacRae

      Oct 23, 2012 at 10:40pm

      Excellent article - so nice to read such clear thinking and analysis. All teachers and parents should do a little research into what goes on at their school as far as funding and programs for addressing the needs of kids living in poverty. Words such as piecemeal, patchwork, ragged, inconsistent, substandard, shoestring, ad hoc, volunteer, off-the-side-of-the-desk will come to mind as they discover what is going on. We all need to stand up and demand a dignified response to the crisis of poverty. Thanks Marcy and Noel.

      Gerry Kent

      Oct 24, 2012 at 8:19am

      Teachers, community workers and volunteers who work with the families ravaged by poverty understand the damage caused by government inaction and cutbacks. The decision-makers in government somehow appear shielded from the grim reality of the situation. The effects of poverty on children and their families are long lasting and are a root cause of many of our social issues . The failure of this provincial government to meaningfully address the issue of poverty is unforgivable.I applaud the work of COPE and all the others who work daily to try to alleviate some of the problems.

      renata aebi

      Oct 24, 2012 at 1:07pm

      A fantastic article. Noel Herron deserves our gratitude for his longterm service to children in BC. It's timely that people start asking their elected representatives running for provincial election where they stand on the issue of child (family) poverty in this province and what action they plan to take both if elected and within their own local communities.

      NoLeftNutter

      Oct 24, 2012 at 2:56pm

      Surprise, surprise - that there are hungry kids has absolutely nothing to do with the educational system. This type of thinking is simply ideological lefty speak for 'we can never think of enough ways to spend your money".

      Momma Bear

      Oct 24, 2012 at 4:51pm

      The suggestion that hungry kids has absolutely nothing to do with the education system was obviously not written by someone trying to educate these hungry kids. I volunteer at a school that has a breakfast program and the need is great. The same children are given food to take home for their evening meal if there are leftovers. Education funding in our province is sadly lacking and this leads to the cycle of low paying jobs and poverty for the children. Thank you for this well written article.

      marcy toms

      Oct 24, 2012 at 5:01pm

      The article suggests that at all three levels of government, comprehensive public policy to address the problem of persistent and growing poverty ought to be in place. BC has no such policy. Since, historically, universal public education has been a key route to material prosperity and social well being, public school students would benefit both from such a policy and from stable, adequate funding. In fact, Noel Herron and I claim that the education system is and has been a part of the solution, helping to ensure that hungry kids get help. The problem is that they have been doing this piecemeal, often depending on handouts and the kindness of strangers. It is well past time for that to change.

      R U Kiddingme

      Oct 24, 2012 at 5:51pm

      Well, education is the long term answer for sure. The more educated you are, the higher your median income, and the smaller your quantity of offspring.

      While the solution might not be as simple as just giving people Masters degrees to lower the birthrate and raise the incomes, there is something in that formula that speaks to public policy priorities. Perhaps capping or even dropping fees for higher education, especially in fields where one has a chance of actually getting paid, e.g. medicine or plumbing -- Latin American Studies not so much.

      But I digress from my point, which is to point a cruel but I think accurate finger for child poverty on the parents who bring children into poverty.

      Now if that is not true -- if the statistical evidence actually shows that poor parents have fewer children and therefore child poverty is not attributable to irresponsible breeding choices -- I will withdraw said finger.

      Ooh, awkward phrase. But you know what I mean.

      Janet Stephenson

      Oct 24, 2012 at 10:09pm

      Parents don't "bring their children into poverty"...they bring them into a world with hope and love. It is up to to everyone of us to make sure that everyone of us has access to nutritious food, clean water, warm and dry shelter and a good education. Poverty in BC is not due to rates of reproduction- it is due to a very few taking far far more than they need.

      R U Kiddingme

      Oct 25, 2012 at 9:07am

      @Janet

      Well, I also presume that having kids is an act of hope and love. Generally. Also, I appreciate that it would be extremely rude and crass to suggest to the parent(s?) of a child in poverty that maybe Jr should have stayed in the rubber til his family got itself into decent living conditions. And I certainly believe in robust social safety net.

      But. Is leaving the provision of food and shelter and education up really to "us" meaning the state? In emergencies, perhaps. Generally, it is the parents' moral if not legal obligation to establish conditions favourable to childrearing before dropping sprog.

      There are alternatives to having the kid.

      Having a kid may or may not be a basic human right. But is having the kid right? Back to my original point: education seems to be a factor and the income/education to child ratio makes a strong case.

      riots

      Oct 25, 2012 at 7:16pm

      Axe the entire schoolboard. It's all middle-management that can go. Decentralize it, all teachers both retired and active should get a share along with members of the community. They can all get 1/4 of the money as a p/t salary for community semi-volunteer work, all of us then have a say in what goes on, the bloated corporate like management structure disappears. Use the 22 million or so leftover to feeds kids for free easily.

      Decentralization is the future, top-down rigid structures and methology is doomed and 20th century nonsense. Save money when everybody is involved not a handful of managers making terrible decisions and bleeding the system dry with their MBAs.