Poverty in Canada: ‘Unnecessary and Unconscionable’

As kids, we weren’t very impressed by our mother’s “war stories” of walking six miles to school after feeding the chickens and having a big bowl of porridge (she hated it so much we were never forced to eat it). She didn’t talk too much about her life as a foster child, which we understood to have been less than happy, but whatever her life as a child lacked, I don’t ever recall her saying that she had grown up hungry. Chickens (and eggs) would have provided some pretty good sustenance.

But hunger (read: poverty) is a curse for many in Canada. And if any other topic has been discussed more, studied more, reported on or occupied governments more, I, for one, have no idea what that topic would be. Unfortunately, all the attention that child and family poverty have garnered over the years hasn’t led to anything even resembling a significant decrease in the number of those living below the poverty line, a sad and demoralizing truth for the many individuals and groups who have been advocating for the poor for years and years.


‘Another year, no improvement’

While we often refer to “child hunger,” one assumes that if children are hungry then so are their parents or caretakers. A Campaign 2000 Report on Child and Family Poverty in Canada in 2014 revealed that 1.3 million children (18.5%) were living in poverty in this great, rich country of ours. The report, published in November, 2016, says unequivocally, that “child and family poverty is unnecessary and unconscionable in a wealthy country – Canada has the resources and policy tools to eradicate it.”

In 1989, the poverty rate in Canada was 18.1%, prompting a resolution from the the Jean Chretien government to rid Canada of poverty by the year 2000 (that’s where Campaign 2000 got its name).

This House seek(s) to achieve the goal of eliminating poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000 — House of Commons, November 24, 1989.

In fact, 27 years later, successive federal governments have failed to attain that lofty goal and unfortunately for us, the child poverty rate in Nova Scotia had risen to 22.5% by 2014, which meant that more than 1 in 5 children were living in poverty. According to the Nova Scotia Child and Family Poverty Report Card of 2016, poverty in Nova Scotia was 24.3% higher than in 1989, giving Nova Scotia a loser award for having the highest rate in Atlantic Canada and the 3rd highest in Canada.

Lesley Frank, Assistant Professor in Sociology at Acadia University, as well as a research associate for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), has been authoring or co-authoring the above mentioned Child and Family Poverty Report Card for 13 years. She is also a member of the steering committee for Campaign 2000, a cross-Canada public education movement to “build Canadian awareness of that 1989 all-party House of Commons resolution” regarding the elimination of child poverty. Frank has also worked as a community-based researcher, spending several years “providing pre-natal service and family resource support to women living in low-income circumstances in the Annapolis Valley.” In her 2016 Report Card, for Frank, the bottom line was that 37,450 children were living in poverty. “Another year, no improvement,” she says.

CCPA-Nova Scotia Director Christine Saulnier states that it will be a few years before data on child poverty registers the impact of “the new investment in the Canadian Child Care Benefit,” but the 2016 Report Card indicates that “unless our governments address the broader structures of inequality, we are not likely to see progress for our most vulnerable children in the province.” Saulnier goes further, stating that “if the Report Card had an actual grade, it would be a failing one for our governments,” although data in the Report Card does show that child poverty would be 32.5% higher in Canada if not for income supports from governments.

Stella Lord, also interviewed by Frank for the Report Card, is a volunteer coordinator with the Community Society to End Poverty-Nova Scotia. “The depth of poverty facing these families (those living in poverty) shows the need for a comprehensive strategy to go much further than just reducing the burden of living in poverty to actually lifting people out of poverty.”


Our own backyard

Let’s look at our Cape Breton backyard and see how it stacks up when it comes to those in our communities who live below the poverty line. While child poverty rates are the lowest in the Census Metropolitan Area of Halifax at 18.8%, across the Causeway in Cape Breton, the highest rate of child poverty was recorded at 32.8% in the Cape Breton Census Area, the bottom line being that 1 in 3 children was living below the after-tax low income measure (LIM). Five communities in Cape Breton had a 30% poverty rate and one in Yarmouth. The rates in Nova Scotia range from 5% to a deplorable 76% in one community in the province.United Way logo (Registered Trademark)

In May of 2016, Lynne McCarron, executive director of United Way Cape Breton, and Katherine and Steve Van Nostrand, United Way Campaign Chairs, met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclas in Ottawa where they discussed “an alignment of a local child poverty reduction plan with national reduction plans” according to the Cape Breton Post. McCarron suggested that “we need to be effective in our spending and use our resources wisely.” While pledging support for a national strategy on child poverty, McCarron indicated the United Way’s hopes to unveil a local strategy as early as June. The United Way, she stated “has a 5-year goal of reducing the Island’s child poverty by 5% over five years.” (I couldn’t reach McCarron for an update on that strategy.)

Many of the factors that exacerbate poverty nationally are at work here in Cape Breton. Child poverty rates are much higher for indigenous children, especially on-reserve children, where (nationally) 60% are reported to be living well below the poverty line. Racialized children and children with disabilities are also more likely to live in poverty as often, even if parents of disabled children do have jobs, they lose much work time tending to the needs of their children. (As an aside, there is a 10-year gap in data for these three groups due to the suspension of the Long Form Census. Data from 2006 indicates a three-fold higher poverty rate within these groups.)

Lack of access to employment and to services that support labor force participation (transportation, childcare) contribute to poverty as does the fact that most government transfers are not pegged to the cost of living, and don’t reduce poverty over time because of increases in the cost of goods and services.

And yet, rather than address the issue of poverty, the Nova Scotia government in its 2015/16 budget continued its focus on cutting the deficit, meaning  most departmental budgets were “frozen” The province has not increased the shelter allowance portion of its income assistance since 2000. A $17/month increase in the personal allowance portion of income assistance in 2013-14 had no noticeable affect on the rate of child poverty in Nova Scotia and, according to the CCPA, it’s “not likely that a similar increase of $20/month in May/2016 will lower the poverty rate either, given that the median income for families on assistance is approximately $800 below the poverty line.” Nova Scotia also “deducts child support payments from income assistance payments of one-parent families.”


Children’s Commissioner

Perhaps we need to look to the federal government which, according to the Toronto Star, is being called upon to appoint a federal Children’s Commissioner as “a non-partisan voice to ensure government policy improves the lives of young people.” Sara Austen, founder of the charity Children First Canada, says “it’s time, after a decade of studies, to act to help the 1.25m (or as some believe the 1.9m) living in poverty in Canada.” Austen will be in Ottawa on Wednesday and Thursday of this week “to prod the Liberals on the promise re the Children’s Commissioner” and “to discuss economic hurdles Canadian children face.” Ashley Whiteman, a member of the Prime Minister’s Youth Advisory Council, says “a children’s commissioner is vitally important to make sure federal decision-makers listen to the young when crafting policies with long-term effects.”

Campaign 2000 has many recommendations for Canada’s government to help bring down the child and family poverty rate but it would seem to me (and to former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal) that a guaranteed annual income would bring about such a decrease. We’ll have to watch the guaranteed income plan that will be established in Ontario come April.

Featured photo via Campaign 2000.

Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.