Toronto Star

October 23, 1999

Children's hardships don't add up to poverty

Rosie DiManno
Toronto Star

WHEN I WAS a kid, this is what my mom served me for breakfast every morning: a large bowl of coffee with a raw egg stirred into it, a stack of digestive cookies, and a pony glass of Marsala.

Marsala is a sickly sweet liqueur made from fortified wine, and also containing egg extract. Mama was convinced that Marsala would thicken the blood and put roses in my cheeks.

Such was my morning repast throughout public school, years in which I skipped Grade 2 and Grade 6. If I was malnourished, which I doubt, it didn't affect my school work nor my energy level. I may have been a geek and maladjusted, but this had nothing to do with my diet or the fact that I was being raised in a below-average income household where any of the ``extras'' - like a new pair of running shoes - had to wait until delivery of the monthly $6 baby bonus.

Lord, I'm sounding like an old, self-referential fart. But I have real problems with the definition of poverty these days, and a lot of people feel the same way. This is not just a semantic issue because identifying poverty is critical to accepting - or rejecting - the findings of weighty studies which may become the basis for developing social policy.

Last week, a report compiled by various city agencies claimed nearly 40 per cent of children in Toronto are living in poverty. If true, that's despicable.

I do not believe it to be true.

The report said 38 per cent of children under 10 are impoverished, an increase of 66 per cent since 1991. The working definition of poverty is that set by Statistics Canada - a family spending more than 54.7 per cent of its gross income on food, shelter and clothing, with a low-income cut-off for a family of four in Toronto pegged at $32,759.

Some very patient people tried to explain to me yesterday how these low-income figures are established, but I'm still confused. There are so many variables, the most pertinent being where a family resides. But reading through the ``Toronto Report Card On Poverty,'' and despite the many impressive charts and graphs contained therein, what remains is an uneasy feeling that we are extrapolating cold and definitive statistics from imprecise and subjective attitudes.

For example, thousands of kids are using breakfast programs for which there are insufficient funds, to the extent that some teachers are digging into their own pockets. But are these children attending breakfast programs because there's not enough food at home, or because their parents are too busy and preoccupied - or even lazy - to feed their own offspring? Are breakfast programs a convenience or a necessity for the majority of children involved?

The report also refers to some 1,000 children living in shelters. That's an alarming figure, until you realize it also includes kids from refugee claimant families who are residing in dozens of motels around the city waiting for their cases to be heard. This is not the same as kids forced into shelters because their parents can't find housing.

Councillor Olivia Chow is Toronto's children and youth advocate. An only child, she grew up in Toronto after her parents emigrated from Hong Kong. The family lived first in a third-floor flat, then in St. James Town.

Chow's mother worked as a maid, her father a certified teacher not permitted to practise here and thus mostly unemployed. Chow acknowledges hers was a hard childhood but not necessarily poor, compared to others. Yet these days, Chow uses the term poverty to describe the lives of children who are ``denied opportunities to develop to the best of their potential,'' even if that means not being able to afford basketball camp or figure skating lessons. This is silly.

I wish all kids could be wildly indulged and provided every glorious opportunity to make the best of themselves. But the lack of such is no definition of poverty.

Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. E-mail:

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