Adrienne Montani: Child poverty got worse in B.C. under the Liberals

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      By Adrienne Montani

      No matter which way you slice it, child poverty in British Columbia has gotten worse under the two terms of Liberal government starting in 2001. The numbers tell the story. B.C.’s child poverty rate has been the highest rate of any province for five consecutive years. The most recent data, from 2006, puts it at 22 percent (before-tax measure), or 16 percent (after-tax measure).

      And these provincial numbers mask the even higher child poverty rates in various cities and towns and among especially vulnerable populations. Half of the children in families led by single mothers are poor. High poverty rates among aboriginal and new immigrant and refugee families push the numbers up.

      In 2006, both single and two-parent poor families were struggling to get by on an average annual income more than $11,000 below the poverty line. Over half of B.C.’s poor children lived in families where the adults worked the equivalent of a full-time, full-year job.

      But wait! Weren’t the years leading up to 2006 the boom years, with billion dollar provincial budget surpluses and low unemployment rates? What gives? Why are so many children being left behind?

      When employment fails to pay parents what they need to meet the high cost of living for families, public policy should kick in with some financial help for child care, affordable housing and income supplements. When people are out of work, income assistance or employment insurance is supposed to catch them.

      But thanks to massive cuts to social services by the Liberal government in their first term, some of which have never been fully restored, coupled with repeated income tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthiest among us while weakening government’s ability to support social programs, we have witnessed growing inequality in this province. A small fraction of top income earners are doing very well, leaving the majority of individuals and families with a smaller share of the pie. Almost all the gains in family income in B.C. in recent years have been in the top 10 percent of families with children, families which had an average annual income over $200,000 in 2006.

      And let’s be clear, children need a fair share of the pie to help them grow up healthy in body, mind and spirit. When they only get the crumbs, we put them at risk for ill health throughout their lives, problems in school, social alienation and maybe even involvement in criminal activity. One third of food bank users in B.C. are children—the crumbs just aren’t enough.

      The evidence on this is in, too. Extensive research by UBC’s Human Early Learning Partnership into children’s vulnerability as they enter the school system shows that between 2004 and 2007 children in many B.C. communities were at greater risk, rather than thriving.

      Contrary to the reaction by other provincial governments, in the face of this evidence of a deeply disturbing poverty problem in B.C., the Liberal government has stuck to denying the facts. As child poverty spiraled upward, they first responded that the numbers were out-of-date. (The StatsCan data takes two years to become available.) Next year would be better, they said. When this form of denial became untenable, they began to dispute the poverty measure used in the annual Child Poverty Report Card. But they have yet to propose an alternative measure. Maybe no measure means no problem! Voila!

      Ever hopeful that good information would lead to good decisions, poverty advocates like those in the First Call coalition have dutifully presented the numbers to government, told the stories of struggling parents and children, and pointed to where provincial policy is hurting families. Advocates have also presented a raft of specific solutions, from investments in a quality child care system, to raising the minimum wage and welfare rates, to building more affordable housing and lowering post secondary tuition fees.

      Most recently, in this election period, hundreds of groups have signed a letter asking all political parties to commit to adopting a comprehensive poverty reduction plan for B.C. with targets and timelines. If we’ve created a crisis of child poverty in the good years, it’s even more urgent that we do something different when the economy is tanking.

      Gordon Campbell said children are his top political priority. So it’s fair to ask, is this shameful legacy on child poverty deliberate or accidental? Either way, it’s not good enough. Let’s make sure the next government, whoever leads it, does better.

      Adrienne Montani is the provincial coordinator of First Call: B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.