Calgary Sun

November 25, 1999

Playing politics with poverty

Truth lost in welter of statistics that attempt to justify social agenda

By ROBB FERGUSSON -- Calgary Sun

All things are relative, you quickly discover, when you delve into the murky world of poverty statistics.

Which is to say, things are often not quite what they seem.

Campaign 2000, a self-described "national coalition of more than 70 groups committed to ending child poverty" -- including everyone from the Canadian Auto Workers and the Canadian School Boards Association to a collection of agencies you've never heard of -- unveiled a damning National Child Poverty Report Card yesterday.

The release was timed to mark the 10th anniversary of a House of Commons resolution pledging to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000.

Its conclusions are quite apocalyptic.

Far from being eliminated in the last decade, child poverty has gotten far, far worse, it appears.

* 19.8% of children in the country are living in poverty, up from 15.3% in 1989.

* The ranks of poor children have swelled by almost half a million since 1989.

If, like me, you're wondering how you've failed to notice the ever-growing crowds of empty-bellied street urchins, read on.

I don't mean to sound callous, because nothing appalls me more than the idea of anyone living in poverty in a rich and generous nation like Canada, let alone the most innocent and most vulnerable.

That there are children going hungry, neglected, shivering in cold, shabby beds, is unfortunately true and shameful.

That this is part of an ever-expanding epidemic -- and one which can be blamed on misguided social policy -- is open to debate.

Because there's a catch.

What exactly constitutes "poverty" in Canada?

If you read the Report Card carefully, you find, buried within it, the admission that there is no accepted "poverty" line in Canada -- although this certainly doesn't stop Campaign 2000 from using that emotive term at every turn.

What there is, is something called the Low Income Cut Off -- one of those numbing measures invented by Statistics Canada.

This is the yardstick Campaign 2000 uses, although it declines to talk about "children living in low-income families" -- wouldn't be nearly as dramatic, would it?

Bear with me for a moment, while I attempt to explain what the Low Income Cut Off actually is.

Developed in 1968, it was based on 1959 and 1961 data that showed the average family spent about 50% of income on food, shelter and clothing. StatsCan then arbitrarily decided that families spending 20% more of their income -- 70% in total -- on those necessities would be defined as being in "straitened circumstances."

Since low income is based on averages, rather than objective measures of poverty, it can never, by definition, be eliminated.

Indeed, as Canadian society as a whole has become more affluent, the Low Income Cut Off has steadily fallen as a percentage of income -- from the initial 70%, to 58.5% in 1978 and 54.7% by 1992.

In other words, a family "living in poverty" in the 1990s spends just 5% more on the necessities than the average family of the early '60s.

But what does that mean in real dollars?

Well, according to the StatsCan figures for 1997, the most recent year available, the Low Income Cut Off for a household of four living in a large city is $27,194 -- after taxes.

StatsCan further fine-tunes the numbers to account for various family combinations.

A two-parent family with two children has an after-tax cut-off of $22,814; for a single-parent family with two children, it's $18,469, after taxes.

Hardly luxury, by any measure. Low income? Certainly -- but not necessarily poverty.

Campaign 2000 uses its report to lobby for a raft of measures with an estimated $15-billion pricetag -- from increased minimum wages and universal child care to social housing and lower university tuition.

And that is the real failure of this Report Card

The spectre of child poverty is, in the end, merely justification to divert money to a range of social programs beloved of the left.

What a monumental disservice to those tragic children who know too well what real poverty is -- and who need our help the most.

Copyright© 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.