Globe and Mail

How Canada broke its pledge to poor children

Ten years ago today, the government declared it would eradicate child poverty by 2000. Forget that notion. In fact, the problem is worse than ever

The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, November 24, 1999

IN TORONTO -- Ten years ago, the federal government passed its ambitious resolution to obliterate child poverty by 2000 -- and Shelley Johnson hit bottom.

She was 22 and raising her baby boy on her own. Social services gave her $1,089 a month, but after paying $500 for a basement apartment in Toronto and $400 for daycare -- "to a lady whose name I got from a board at the mall" -- she had all of $189 for food, clothing, medicine and bus tickets.

Even so, she was trying to claw her way back. She was an excellent student in a federally sponsored secretarial program. One day, she finished early and went to fetch her son. The caregiver, a trained nurse, had fallen asleep. The baby was squatting in the same sodden diaper he had worn all day and was sucking on a bottle filled with Kool-Aid. Devastated, she pondered quitting school for her son's sake.

Today, the government's deadline for ending poverty is fast approaching, but Canada has failed utterly. There are many more poor children than the one million who lived in poverty in 1989, measured before tax. In 1997, the last year for which figures are available, the number stood at 1.4 million.

"It's been a bad decade," said Ellen Adelberg of the Canadian Council on Social Development.

The story of Canada's poor children since 1989 is also the story of single mothers such as Ms. Johnson. Now 32, she has a steady job and owns a $160,000 house in the suburbs. The poor do not necessarily stay poor, but as Ms. Johnson has found, they may remain perilously close to toppling backward.


The pledge to eliminate child poverty within a decade may have seemed overly ambitious, but not to the man who inspired it.

"This was a very doable goal," former federal New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent said yesterday. The speech he gave on the last day of his career as a parliamentarian is what prompted the all-party resolution that was announced 10 years ago today.

The Progressive Conservatives of Brian Mulroney were in power and no one promised any concrete measures to reach the goal. But social agencies across Canada were sufficiently optimistic to join forces and set up Campaign 2000, an agency dedicated to holding the politicians' feet to the fire.

At the time, Canada's child-poverty rate was 15.3 per cent and, Mr. Broadbent said, "I would have taken it as a real mark of success if we had got to where Germany, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands were then: around 5 per cent."

The economy had peaked, as it turned out. Recession soon followed. Government revenues fell, deficits bulged. Social programs went under the knife. The Liberals came to power under Jean Chrétien and in 1995 announced nearly $7-billion in cuts to transfer payments over the fiscal years 1996-97 and 1997-98.

Provinces had less money in their hands, but more choice in how to spend it. Health and education were priorities for the provinces. By 1997, child poverty had risen to 19.8 per cent.

Now, as the century draws to a close, there is a budgetary surplus, tax cuts are coming and new money is being pumped into children's programs.

"There's some hope," said Laurel Rothman, the co-ordinator of Campaign 2000.

But Mr. Broadbent, now a researcher at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., remains deeply disappointed at the way things have turned out.

Governments "ought to have taken into account the commitment that was made, and not included children's programs in those cutbacks," he said. "But they almost took the brunt of it. And I think it's a disgrace."


The strands of Ms. Johnson's life are the broad themes of countless think-tank reports: how child poverty often falls into the province of single mothers; how fathers who are behind in support payment make the lives of these children harder; how community support helps people endure poverty and climb back out; how children, despite the best efforts of their parents, may be damaged; and how complex the task is of resolving such problems.

Both public and private support helped Ms. Johnson attain her house in the suburbs. A downtown pharmacy gave her free diapers (the owner, a Korean immigrant, was showing his gratitude to Canada for taking him in). A branch of the Royal Bank gave her hampers of food, toys and clothing (she found $30 tucked into a mitten and cried). She went to food banks.

And when she wanted to quit the secretarial program so her son would not have to sit in a wet diaper all day, a social worker found her an emergency subsidy in a municipal program known as Employment Support Initiative for a spot in a daycare centre.

But if she were in the same situation today, would Shelley Johnson find the same support?

Probably not, Ms. Rothman says. The subsidy program that helped Ms. Johnson is gone, as are any programs that succeeded it.

Ms. Johnson thrived in her secretarial course: She won an award. She graduated on a Thursday in June, 1991, and started work the following Monday at $29,000 a year.

"The first thing I did was I got a really nice apartment." It was in a non-profit building uptown, and at $702 a month for a two-bedroom, the rent was geared to her income. And she bought a little Hyundai.

Her son's father was no help, she said, and paid no child support despite a court order that he contribute $50 a month. Six years later, she entered another relationship and bought the house in the suburbs, with the help of an inheritance from her father.

Now, she is a single mother once again, with more children -- a three-year-old girl and a two-month-old boy. She is already back at work. Her employer (the same one all these years, who now pays her $37,000 annually) was willing to top up her maternity benefits. But the baby had a precious subsidy for daycare, and Ms. Johnson was afraid that if she did not use it, she would lose it.


How bad is Canada's child-poverty problem? It depends on the definition -- though by any definition it has risen, not fallen, in the past decade.

The low-income cutoff line devised by Statistics Canada is used by the news media and social agencies as being synonymous with poverty. When it was first developed in 1968, the line was based on a 1959 study that found that typical Canadian families spent 50 per cent of their income on food, clothing and shelter. Statscan arbitrarily estimated that people spending more than 70 per cent on these basics would be in difficulty.

But as living standards of Canadians rose, the low-income cutoff changed too. Statscan adds on 20 percentage points to determine the cutoff. To fall below it, a family today would have to spend more than 54.7 per cent on necessities. Below this level, children cannot be fully participating members of society, social advocates say.

". . . Most measures [of poverty] are relative measures," Ms. Rothman said. "We shouldn't compare ourselves to Central Africa. It's a completely different society."

But there are several other ways of looking at poverty lines:

After tax: The poverty rate in 1997 would be just 15.8 per cent instead of 19.8, if family needs were considered after taxes.

Market Basket Measure: Human Resources Development Canada has been developing a new measure at the request of the federal and provincial governments. Broader than subsistence but narrower than full social inclusion, it is based on the concept of "necessaries" as defined by the 18th-century economist Adam Smith: "Whatever the custom of the country renders it indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without." The 1996 child-poverty rate would go down to 12 per cent from 17 under the MBM.

The United Nations poverty index: Based on disparities in a country's achievements in income, health and education, Canada ranks ninth out of 17 industrialized countries on the index, though it is first overall in human development.

If Canada fared poorly on relative poverty, how did it do on absolute poverty -- in combating hunger among children, for instance? No better, according to the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

"Our folks are at about 50 per cent of the poverty line," said Sue Cox, vice-chairwoman of the association. "If they could get up to the low-income cutoff, they probably wouldn't need a food bank."

In the greater Toronto area of about 4.5 million people, about 50,000 children receive food from food banks, up from 33,000 in 1989.


Is Ms. Johnson poor? She pays $1,300 a month in mortgage, insurance and taxes. It sounds like a hefty payment, but with rent control ending in Ontario on vacant apartment units, she would not find it much cheaper to rent.

Ms. Johnson does consider herself poor. "The way I look at it, if at the end of the month you're in the hole $494 on your bank account" -- with overdraft protection for $500 -- and "you have just 30 bucks in another account, I consider that to be poverty."

This year, she had to tell her first-born, now a promising 10-year-old hockey player, that he could not join a league. The $530 cost of enrolment and used equipment was beyond their reach. "I explained to him, 'We have a lot of bills to pay.' "

He is a latchkey child. He could have been in subsidized after-school care, but felt he was too old. He goes home, does his homework, watches Pokémon and waits for his mother to come home.

His mother worries about him. His peers mock him for not having the latest in clothing. "Now sometimes it seems like he's getting this tough attitude. I don't want him to think he has to be one of the bad kids, the tough kids, the 'oh, nothing-bothers-me' kind of kids."

The father of the two younger children will be paying $416 monthly for them as of next month, plus 46 per cent of extra expenses such as dance lessons.

"As long as he steps up to the plate, I think things will be pretty good for them," she said.

Even so, she still can't help but feeling vulnerable -- "a paycheque or two away from being homeless."


Sean Fine has written extensively on social policy for The Globe and Mail.


Less ready to learn: Among children aged 4 and 5 from low-income households (under $30,000), 25.3 per cent scored poorly on verbal tests that indicate readiness to learn. Only 15.6 per cent of middle-income children and 9.2 per cent of higher-income children scored poorly.

Dysfunctional families: 14.6 per cent of low-income children were in households consider dysfunctional, according to a scale devised by researchers in Hamilton. Just 7.5 per cent of children in middle-income homes and 5 per cent of children in high-income homes are growing up in dysfunctional homes.

Behaviour problems: About 15 per cent of those who were in the lowest of four income groups in both 1994 and 1996 had aggression, depression, anxiety or hyperactivity problems. Only about 9 per cent of those who were not in the poorest group in either year had behaviour problems.

Academic lapses: About 7 per cent of those who were in the poorest group failed a grade, compared with about 2 per cent of those who were not in the poorest group.

Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, Human Resources Development Canada and Statistics Canada


                        Urban areas with a population of

                 500,000  100,000 to  30,000 to  Less than  Rural

                 and over   499,000     39,000    30,000    areas

2-person family   $17,542   $14,776    $14,547   $13,294   $11,501

4-person family    27,633    23,277     22,916    20,941    18,117

Source: Statistics Canada

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