Canada accused of still failing its poor

It's been more than 20 years since the House of Commons unanimously resolved to end child poverty by 2000, but a national anti-poverty organization says it's shocked by how little progress has been made.
Campaign 2000 says 639,000 children still live in poverty in Canada — one in every 10 children. Among aboriginal children, the rate is one in four. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

It has been more than 20 years since the House of Commons unanimously resolved to end child poverty by 2000, but a national advocacy group says it's shocked by how little progress has been made.

While the economy has more than doubled in size since that 1989 resolution, the incomes of Canada's poorest families have stagnated, Campaign 2000 says in its 20th annual report card on child and family poverty released Wednesday.

"Every year I am shocked by the lack of progress made in poverty eradication," said Laurel Rothman, national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000. "The gap between rich and poor families has continued to widen, and low-income and average-income families are left struggling to keep up."

The group says 639,000 children still live in poverty in Canada — one in every 10 children. Among aboriginal children, the rate is one in four. Above-average poverty rates are also seen among children of immigrants and among children with a disability, as a parent frequently has to stay home to look after the child. 

More than 323,000 children also belong to families that rely on food banks, the report says.

Defining poverty

  • Canada does not have a standard measure of poverty. Most of Campaign 2000's poverty-rate estimates cited in this story use Statistics Canada's after-tax Low-Income Cut-Off (LICO).
  • It views this measure as an indicator of the adequacy of disposable income and is often considered the unofficial "poverty line."
  • The 2009 after-tax LICO for a single parent with one child in a large urban centre is $22,420.

That's not to say there has been no progress in the fight against poverty. The rate of child and family poverty was 9.5 per cent in 2009, down from 11.9 per cent in 1989. But Campaign 2000 calls that 20-year change "strikingly small" given the growth in the Canadian economy since then.

Nationally, the group is calling for a federal minimum wage of $11 an hour. Currently, there is no federal minimum wage — provincial minimum wages range from $9 to $10.25 hourly. Only in Nunavut is the minimum wage $11.

But it says a higher minimum wage by itself will not close the gap. It also recommends that the child benefit for low-income families be boosted to $5,400 per child (the current maximum is $3,485).

'Cautious optimism'

Campaign 2000 refers to what it calls "cautious optimism" in describing some provincial efforts to tackle child and family poverty.

Quebec, for instance, has adopted poverty reduction strategies that have seen the province's poverty rate plunge from 16.1 per cent in 2000 to 7.7 per cent in 2009. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the poverty rate dove from 17.9 per cent to 9.3 per cent over the same period.

Newfoundland is the only province that provides enough social assistance for a single parent with one child to live above the poverty line. In every other province, welfare rates keep a single parent with one child living in poverty —  sometimes just below the poverty line, but sometimes as much as $5,000 below the low-income cut-off mark. 

Even having a full-time job is no guarantee of escaping poverty. Figures show that one in three low-income children lives in a family where at least one parent works full-time year-round. One in four workers in Canada was in a low-wage job in 2010 — one that pays less than $13.32 an hour.

"We need better jobs but we also do need better and more flexible public policies that help people when they're not able to be in the labour force," Rothman said.

The group calls for more government attention to child care, noting that fewer than one in five children has access to a regulated child-care space.

Most European countries have some form of universal public child-care, Rothman said, which has helped to keep poverty rates below five per cent in some cases.

The group also wants to see a national housing strategy to address the 750,000 children under the age of 15 who live in housing that, in its words, is either "unaffordable, substandard, overcrowded or all three."

The Campaign 2000 report also noted that the federal Conservatives' decision last year to make the long-form census voluntary will make the group's job more difficult.

"Census data is the only reliable source of information on poverty rates with demographic breakdowns," it says. "Until the long-form census or a similarly reliable data source is introduced, we will not be able to track child poverty rates among selected social groups for 2010 or after."