Globe and Mail

Harris slams child-poverty report card

Numbers 'hogwash,' Ontario Premier says of statistic that one-fifth of kids are poor

MURRAY CAMPBELL
The Globe and Mail; With reports from Richard Mackie in Toronto,; Jill Mahoney in Edmonton and Canadian Press.
Thursday, November 25, 1999

Ontario Premier Mike Harris says it is "hogwash" to suggest that nearly one-fifth of the province's children are living in poverty.

Mr. Harris disputed a contention by a coalition of advocacy groups that Ontario has had the biggest increase in child poverty of any province in the past decade.

"The report is hogwash," Mr. Harris said of the national child-poverty report card released yesterday in Ottawa by Campaign 2000. "It's based on false data."

The report card said that 1.4 million Canadian children live in families that have to struggle to provide the basics of food, clothing and shelter -- 19.8 per cent.

Campaign 2000, representing more than 70 organizations, called on the government to set aside $3-billion a year for improved social programs.

It said the child-poverty rate has increased by 49 per cent in the past 10 years, swelling the ranks of poor children by almost half a million. It noted that one in four children in Canada lives in poverty from birth to age 6.

"Ending child poverty has become Canada's millennium challenge," said Laurel Rothman of Campaign 2000. "We still have a lot of work to do that will require serious resources and commitment."

The report card found that in Ontario, the number of children living in poverty jumped by 118 per cent in the past decade, with 538,000 children -- 19.9 per cent -- in poverty in 1997.

Only Saskatchewan has lowered its child-poverty rate -- by 8 per cent -- since 1989, the coalition said, with a 1997 rate of 19.5 per cent.

Rates stayed the same in Newfoundland, which leads the country with 22.8 per cent of its children living in poverty.

Prince Edward Island has the lowest rate of child poverty, at 14.9 per cent, and its percentage also stayed the same.

Mr. Harris rejected the way the coalition measured poverty. He said, for example, that the United Nations put the rate of child poverty in Canada at 6 per cent.

Campaign 2000 officials said that Statistics Canada's low-income cutoffs for 1996 and 1997 were used to calculate the rates. It noted that Canada has no official poverty line but that the Statscan index is a consistent way of identifying those who are "substantially worse off than average."

In Alberta, Premier Ralph Klein also expressed concern that the group's 20-per-cent child-poverty figure seemed high.

"I just don't get that sense that that is an accurate figure here in the province of Alberta," Mr. Klein said.

Mr. Klein said his government has taken action to address needs of children, including the establishment of a separate Children's Services Ministry in May and last month's first annual children's forum.

Marvyn Novick, author of a discussion paper released yesterday by Campaign 2000, said low income means anyone who has to spend more than 55 per cent of income on shelter, food and clothing.

Patrick Basham, social-policy director of the conservative Fraser Institute think tank, heaped scorn on the 20-per-cent figure.

"Nonsense, I think, would be the one-word summary," he said, adding that poverty means simply that someone is deprived of basic necessities such as food, clothing and shelter.

He said the Statistics Canada low-income cutoff index is a measure of inequality, not true poverty.

He said it is "dangerous" to have the coalition's 20-per-cent figure repeated because "it convinces people that there is a crisis instead of a problem and unfortunately this kind of misinformation can lead to political pressure to do the things that poverty groups are advocating."

The Fraser Institute, using its own data, estimates child poverty in Canada is between 5 and 6 per cent.

The coalition argues that the government should spend half of its net budget surplus during the next five years on social investments in children and families.

It says Ottawa should spend $3-billion a year for next five years, including $4-billion earmarked for child-care and family-resource centres and $1-billion for affordable housing.

Campaign 2000 also urged:

The commitment of 1.5 per cent of Canada's projected gross domestic product to pay for the five-year investment strategy;

The creation of a comprehensive child-benefit system, paying $4,000 a child for low-income families but also helping modest and middle-income families;

The lowering of university and college tuition fees.

HOW TO MEASURE POVERTY

Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff lines: This measure is used as the country's unofficial poverty line by the media and social agencies. It measures relative poverty: the idea that the poor are those who do not have enough money to participate fully in society. Families that spend more than 54.7 per cent of their income on food, clothes and shelter fall below these lines. Average families spend 34.7 per cent of their income on these necessities.

LICO, after tax: The same relative measures, but based on the after-tax disparities in income between average families and low-income families. This tends to produce lower poverty figures than the pretax measurements.

Market basket measure: This places more than half of the country's child poverty in Ontario and British Columbia, where living costs are highest. Developed by Human Resources Development Canada and still being tested, the measure is based on the cost of goods that people need to live a decent life -- a somewhat lower standard than full inclusion in society, but higher than subsistence.

Basic needs: This standard, developed by Christopher Sarlo for the Fraser Institute, measures absolute poverty -- a lack of money for food, clothes, health care and other essentials. Just 5 per cent of Canadians are poor by this measure. Similarly, the International Labour Organization uses the U.S. measure of poverty: anyone living on $14.40 (U.S.) -- about $20 (Canadian) -- a day or less. About 6 per cent are poor by this standard. Staff

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