National Post

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Wednesday, November 24, 1999

The real cause of child poverty: lazy kids
Subtly, children are being blamed for their situation
William Watson
Financial Post

The latest reason we're all supposed to feel revolted by capitalism and guilty with ourselves is that with only six weeks to go we have failed to eradicate child poverty by 2000, as was promised on all our behalf by a unanimous vote of the House of Commons 10 years ago this week.

Of course, what we should really feel revolted by and guilty with ourselves about is the fact that we elected politicians so utterly unacquainted with the basic properties of statistical distributions. Had they all voted 10 years ago that "By the year 2000, no Canadian will be in the bottom quarter of the income distribution," the appropriate response would have been a nationwide guffaw. Income distributions don't come with only three quarters. Unless we all have exactly the same income SOMEbody has to be in the bottom quarter.

Or what if all our MPs had declared 10 years ago that "Never again shall any Canadian family have to spend 20 percentage points more of its income on food, clothing and shelter than the average family does!"

Would anyone have thought this a goal worth pursuing -- or worth gnashing our teeth and rending our garments over, as CBC has been doing all week, if we didn't reach it?

Hardly, but that's pretty much the goal our politicians set, for if your income is at a level where people normally spend 20 points more of it on necessities than the median Canadian family, Statistics Canada puts you at the "low-income cut-off" (LICO).

Every time StatsCan publishes these LICO numbers, it wearily warns that they don't measure poverty. If the average family was so rich that it spent only 5% of its income on necessities, we wouldn't really regard families that could spend only 75% on luxuries as poor, even though they'd be at the LICO. But all of StatsCan's protests have no effect. When people declare that child poverty has risen, they're generally using the LICO. If we keep on using it, child poverty is all but certain never to be eradicated, no matter how rich we all get.

What's needed is an absolute measure of poverty. Agree on a standard of living no one would want and then see how many Canadians live worse than this. When Nipissing University's Christopher Sarlo did exactly that for the Fraser Institute a number of years ago, he found that poverty in Canada was in the very low single digits, though in an update he did calculate that it had increased slightly in the early 1990s recession.

Now that's a statistic that IS worth worrying about. But when the federal government announced (very, very quietly) that its own new measure of poverty would include indicators of absolute well-being it was bombarded by criticism from the left, which evidently prefers its poverty measures high -- and free of any whisper of the Fraser Institute.

What's really interesting about the child poverty debate is the subtle way in which children themselves are being made responsible for their situation. We don't actually have a child poverty problem in Canada. We have a parent poverty problem (albeit a small one if you accept Sarlo's numbers). The most obvious remedy is to discourage poor people from being parents, though I suppose that would be regarded as elitist and cruel.

Maybe so, but the greatest joy in most people's lives is also their greatest expense. If you can't afford the expense, you should consider forgoing the joy.

Beyond that, we need ways of making poor parents less poor. Instead, we are offered ways in which the federal government can intervene in infants' lives. As Human Resources Development Minister Jane Stewart told Alison Smith on Sunday Report, "starting at the very early years is the right thing to do at this time." (Remember the Jesuits? "Give me the child when he is seven and I will show you the man." Or Plato? Children are "young and tender ..." and "any impression we choose to make leaves a permanent mark.")

But if the problem is that parents are poor, why are we intervening in toddlers' lives? Have they foolishly chosen the wrong parents? Are they contributing insufficiently to their family's income? Or is it that, despite our outrage when the proposition is stated bluntly (as in the preceding paragraph), we don't actually think poor parents can do a good job raising children?

When asked Sunday evening why child poverty had not yet been eradicated, Ms. Stewart said nothing about statistical impossibility, but declared instead, in echoes of Hillary Clinton's "it takes a village," that "it is going to take the whole country. It's going to take all parties, all levels of government, individual Canadians [sic] for us to really make a difference in the lives of our children."

This is, of course, evasive happy-speak. If passing laws is important, it only takes Ms. Stewart's caucus. If passing laws is not important, then what's best is that I take care of my children and you take care of yours. If instead "all parties, all levels of government" get involved, God help the children.

William Watson, editor of Policy Options, teaches economics at McGill University.

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