Viveca Ellis: Child poverty in B.C. is a policy-failure crisis

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      Viveca Ellis is a cofounder of the Single Mothers’ Alliance B.C. This commentary was originally delivered in a speech she made during a press conference for the First Call child poverty report card on November 24.

      Child poverty is not a given, or an inevitable fact—it is a crisis, a policy-failure crisis that violates the fundamental rights of the child.

      The crisis of poverty can come for any of us, at any time. For single mothers, in our current policy climate, simply becoming a single mother plunges our children into the crisis of poverty, for one out of every two of us.

      Our share of B.C.’s poorest children is extremely high. We are raising nearly 55,000 children below the poverty line—thousands more hover just above or at that line.

      That so many impoverished children belong to women raising them alone, is an inescapably feminist, women’s rights issue regarding economic equality and access. Rigid gender roles in relation to parenting trap women in solo child-rearing—this also impacts the child poverty rate in BC.

      Single motherhood is a poverty "equalizer" among women. Current social policy in this province creates a perfect storm for single mother poverty, regardless of education level, socio-economic status, and other factors.

      My experience of poverty, and struggle as a single mother over the past five years, has led me to a preoccupation with women’s and children’s anti-poverty advocacy in B.C. An organization I co-founded, the Single Mothers’ Alliance of B.C., with a group of single mothers five months ago, is a member of the First Call coalition.

      When my son was four weeks old, I became a single mother. In the fragile post-partum period, it was an instant poverty crisis. With no home of my own, and a newborn colicky baby, I was thrust into poverty. I did have basic EI maternity leave from my full-time job, though the amount I received was not enough to support myself as a lone parent with a child. I had no choice but to move in with family under duress.

      Struggling to get back on my feet, I "grabbed" a random survival job in desperation—a low paying, precarious job that allowed the flexibility I needed to take care of my baby, though it did not promise hours. This part-time job without any benefits did little help in my situation.

      The precarious part-time work many single mothers must choose in order to balance the juggling act of parenting, unaffordable childcare, and work excludes them from labour protection and benefits. This is unfair.

      I had much trouble locating a childcare space, which is not surprising, since we have licensed child care spaces for just 20 percent of children in B.C. So, I found a caregiver, a Russian immigrant, I will call her Illana, herself struggling with poverty, to look after my son a few days a week. Her rate was $11 an hour. My hourly wage was $13. I took home $2 an hour. It was a mess.

      Looking closely at the three of us as case study, we can see the situation clearly. We were two women and one little boy among thousands, trapped in a culture of poverty created by low wage work and unregulated childcare in B.C.

      I was trying to participate in the labour force to work, but the reality of low-wages made it futile. Working full time with a poverty wage meant I would live $8,000 below the poverty line, and this would solve none of my problems.

      Illana was one of thousands in an unprotected low-wage labour force of caregivers in B.C., made up largely of women. We have a culture in B.C. of poor women taking care of other women’s poor children in unlicensed childcare settings. From each angle, the loss for Illana, myself, and my son is clear.

      The childcare crisis in B.C. is a women’s poverty crisis, a work force access and participation crisis for mothers, and, in the case of single mothers’ struggles to work, it has a direct and profound impact on the child poverty in our province. I wanted to work. I tried to work. But the crushing cost of housing, lack of spaces in affordable housing, and the cost of childcare, had clamped down over my life like an iron claw.

      And then, as the story goes with so many single mothers, especially with children under five, this trap drove me straight into a wall. One typically rainy Vancouver day I pushed my baby buggy down to the welfare office.

      I had done everything I could to avoid that moment, but the deck was stacked against me it seemed. Social stigma and our "charity oriented" response to child poverty and single motherhood posits that single mothers and their children’s lives are defined by hand-me-downs, hand-outs, subsidies, and state dependency, that a single mother led family is a woman and children in need of charity and government support.

      This is not an inevitable reality for single mothers and their children. It is a choice our current government is making, and with the right policies and supports, it can be eliminated.

      My baby became a welfare baby.

      We know well what research on the social determinants of health tells us regarding the life-long impact of early poverty on infants. It is a kind of life sentence. We also know what the solutions are, proposed today by First Call.

      The Public System of Integrated Early Care and Learning with the $10 a day child-care plan would have allowed me to work, provided my son with an enriched ECD environment, and Illana the opportunity to thrive as a new immigrant and ECE professional in this country with a decent wage and benefits.  It would have prevented my son from ending up on social assistance when he was most vulnerable as an infant and toddler.

      Stuck on welfare, and with time passing as I struggled, I felt my ability to work, my career prospects, start to trickle down the drain the longer I stayed out of the work force. Here enters the reality of wage inequality, discrimination against mothers and motherhood in the work force, and economic exclusion. The earnings gap in the workplace is greater for single mothers than it is for other mothers—we are at the bottom of the heap, if we are working at all.

      Where women are losing in a game stacked against them in the workforce, single mothers are not even on the team. We are in the food bank line-up. Our children are the ones who pay the price.

      So there I was, dangling from the shreds of monthly welfare cheques. A ministry staffer told me to "get a job, any job" right away, or I would lose benefits. On social assistance, I was pushed into getting any minimum wage job in the service sector as fast as possible.

      I could apply for other higher paying jobs in my field as well, but I could not "hold out for them", as they said. Previous work I had done did not matter. If I could work at Tim Horton’s tomorrow, I had to.

      I finally found a daycare spot for around $1,300 a month. Mothers with subsidy would still be left with a hefty bill of at least $700 dollars a month, and with rent, food, diapers, and transportation costs, a minimum wage job would not even come close to meeting my needs.

      And I would work 40 hours a week to remain in poverty and never see my beautiful baby. If I attained the job I was being forced to get, I could not leave the home of my relatives and pay full rent. I could not live independently. I could not afford a bus pass or diapers.

      Our system was trying to force me as fast as possible back into the precise situation that had landed me on welfare in the first place. It was a chaotic nightmare that made no sense whatsoever. The welfare rates are so low that without my family and friends, my son would have been much worse off, as we know thousands are today.

      Raising the welfare rates is crucial to reducing child poverty in B.C. Being on welfare, for me, was like treading water. Our broken system requires you to use all the energy you have to stay in exactly the same place.  You tire quickly. You feel yourself starting to slip under, under the valued work that suits you, under the social fabric of communities, under society. You begin to lose hope, you start to give up, and you sink.

      And then I got the letter. A letter that read, in summary: your rights to determine family maintenance have been suspended and assigned to the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program. I panicked. I was filled with fear for how it would affect my particular situation. It was like a punch in the chest. 

      How those words ring in the ears of any Canadian: "your rights…have been suspended". 

      The plan I had spent time creating with my son’s father was void; the clawback wrecking ball was swinging its way into our lives. They would forcibly collect child support from my son's father, deny my son the funds, and subtract the amount dollar for dollar from my cheque, if they could collect it in the first place.  My son was being punished for my poverty.

      Single mother plaintiffs and the Single Mothers’ Alliance of B.C. will meet the provincial government in court to examine the rights of children and single mothers in relation to this policy, which deepens poverty every day for the poorest children in the province. Or we could end the claw back right now, as First Call asks in the report card released today.

      There are certain policies in Canada and B.C. that treat the children of single mothers and other single parents differently than other children. In the case of the clawback and income splitting, these children appear to matter less, and have fewer rights.

      Income splitting denies the existence of single parent families—it wipes us completely off the map, as if we don’t exist. We are not even the losers at the table, thrown some scraps. We are not invited to the table at all.

      In history, children born out of wedlock were abandoned by the state. They were filius nullies—Latin for nobody’s children. The illegimate ones.

      The clawback and income splitting are two wrongful policies that treat single mother and single parent families, and their innocent children, differently than other children, and as far as our governments are concerned, wash their hands of their responsibility for them.

      With little else to hang onto, I clutched every dollar of federal government transfers, such as the Canada Child Tax Benefit. Those transfers allowed me to get the bananas and bread my son needed, since the social assistance rate was so low—impossible to live on. I struggled along.

      So, how does my story end? What allowed me to swim forward? To escape treading water on welfare, and sinking entirely out of sight in poverty?

      I secured a position in my field with an employer that paid a living wage for Vancouver. Attaining a living wage is the singular factor that allowed me to move off social assistance. It was possible for me to secure an apartment, feed myself and my son, get a bus pass, and afford the child care I needed to be able to work.

      Implementing the First Call recommendations of establishing a living wage and the $10 a day child care plan, ending the clawback of child support from single mothers on welfare, raising social assistance rates, increasing government transfers, and putting a poverty reduction plan in place in B.C. will help lift B.C.’s children out of poverty now. It would have helped mine.

      Otherwise, single mothers and others will continue to raise "nobody’s children" in food bank line-ups through-out the province. And we all pay.

      Viveca Ellis is a cofounder of the Single Mothers’ Alliance B.C. This commentary was originally delivered in a speech she made during a press conference for the First Call child poverty report card on November 24.




      Nov 24, 2014 at 7:48pm

      Children are our future and our future is very sad , cold , hungry , neglected, scared and angry . The people that govern are very unhealthy and greedy to let this happen , this is a very bad situation and one we should all hang our heads in shame and then get up and really do something that actually changes the live of the children and youth that are suffering .


      Nov 24, 2014 at 7:55pm

      You gotta be careful not to lump in all "poor kids" in the same category. Richmond has one of the highest child poverty rates in the country. That statistic is mostly false, because it has a lot of people either from Mainland China or to direct ties there. Given that the income earner mostly works in China and therefore does not file income taxes on worldwide income in Canada, it gives a false impression.

      I'm not saying it's not bad here in BC, but some statistics are misleading due to immigration policies.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 5:41am

      You referred to the Family Maintenance Enforcement Program (FMEP) and your rights being assigned to that program. Actually, it would have been the Family Maintenance Program (FMP) not FMEP. (It is most unfortunate that the programs have near-identical names, causes great confusion.) Both government, you say? Well, technically yes, but FMP obtains court orders, FMEP enforces them only. Anyone can use FMEP, it has nothing to do with are you on benefits or not. I won't comment on the clawback (back in the early 90's they let you keep $100/mo, can't remember when they ended that) but at least if FMP gets you an order for support, when the day comes that you no longer need benefits, at least you have an order in place for support and you don't have to navigate the court system by yourself to get one.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 2:17pm

      Just thinking out loud here, but I tried out the child support calculator, and the whole situation is odd.

      It looks like if a typical working single mother receiving child support makes $1 less income, she only receives $0.35 less take home. This is mostly due to the equation used increasing child support from the father, but also due to income taxes.

      This means that if child care is say $12 an hour, she would have to make $36 an hour for working to make rational economic sense. And due to the clawback, it holds true all the way to zero income.

      There's something not right there. Even if you can justify the individual policies, combine the housing crisis in Vancouver with lack of childcare, child support policies, and the welfare clawback, and it's as if it's a system designed to bury separated parents under a ton of bricks.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 2:31pm

      While I am in general in favour of planning childbirth so that every kid is wanted, loved, and fully supportable by the family, obviously life throws us wrenches all the time. The author here is someone who seems to have made all the "right" life choices and still wound up in poverty largely because of the lack of child care.

      Norway and Sweden have state supported daycare in part because of the economic benefit to the nation of having mothers available to work. These are also countries with huge VAT but I don't actually mind consumption taxes, if I can afford multiple cars etc. I could certainly afford to help my neighbours out through taxes. It's an idea whose time has come.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 2:43pm

      Thinking about it further, the social dynamics of the welfare clawback are a disaster.

      In an example I found, a women would receive $906 a month on welfare. She receives an additional $335 for the child.

      The father, obviously not very high income himself, pays $634.

      This is subtracted from the welfare to the mom, so the ministry only pays $541.

      Do you see what happened there? It's almost like a card trick, be sure to watch the huckster's hand closely!

      Child support is just that, support for the child - but it's being subtracted from the *mother's* portion of the welfare cheque. In other words, the government is making the father pay for his ex's welfare. Not only that, they're doing it with money he earned that is supposed to be for his child.

      And due to a dollar-for-dollar clawback, whether he pays child support or not, none of his money reaches his child. And just to add insult, his ex partner is being used as a kind of collection agency to extract welfare from his income.

      This isn't merely mean-spirited grab from low income children. It's a recipe for generating bad attitudes towards child support, and creating animosity between separated parents. It's evil.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 3:25pm

      re Bruce: as I understand it, the theory is that the state should not be paying to support someone when there is a person out there who has a legal obligation to support the person receiving benefits. The person with the responsibility pays his/her required amount, and the state's obligation is reduced accordingly.


      Nov 25, 2014 at 3:57pm

      I get the justification. But there are two problems with that:

      1) Income Assistance is *income assistance*. It should be treated as the mother's income, not as a third party to a child support agreement between parents.

      2) Far worse, you need to take another look at the example above:

      Mother gets $906 for herself + $335 for the child = $1241 total

      Father owes $634 in child support.

      Ministry collects the $634.

      Notice something? 634 is more than the 335 of welfare for the child!!!

      They are collecting $299 of child support and applying it to cover social assistance for the mother.

      Child support is not alimony! It represents the legal obligation of the father to support the child, not the mother!

      Even if you were to follow their mean-spirited logic, the maximum amount deduced for child support should be the child's portion of social assistance ($335).

      This is a form of fraud by the social services ministry.


      Nov 26, 2014 at 8:05am

      "Given that the income earner mostly works in China and therefore does not file income taxes on worldwide income in Canada"

      That is not factually or legally true in most cases, and in any event, it is not something you can determine from outside observations.

      Taxation in Canada depends on residency, and residency is not based only on where you live or work, or even citizenship for that matter.

      Residency under the CRA is determined by your "ties" to Canada (family, business, economic, cultural, historic) not just where you live or earn.

      In the most basic case you described above, a citizen or landed immigrant who leaves the family in Canada and works in China, but returns regularly, and has "ties" in Canada, would pay Canadian income taxes on worldwide income.

      Long story short, if you dont want to pay Canadian taxes on worldwide income, you have to almost completely "cut the umbilical" to the Great White North.

      "I'm not saying it's not bad here in BC, but some statistics are misleading due to immigration policies"

      Not when the latter has no bearing on the former due to misunderstanding income tax regulation


      Nov 26, 2014 at 10:41am


      A bit evasive. Canada taxes income, not wealth, so it's perfectly possible that the "poverty" stats for Richmond are distorted. On the flipside, they could be distorted in the other direction: Vancouver for example has higher real-world poverty than incomes suggest due to the extreme cost of housing.