Globe and Mail

National poverty rate dips

But number of poor children up 42 per cent since 1989 despite booming economy

SHAWN McCARTHY
Source: National Council on Welfare
The Globe and Mail
Saturday, December 16, 2000

OTTAWA -- The number of Canadians living below the poverty line dropped in 1998 for the first time in nearly 10 years, although nearly five million people were still struggling to pay for food, shelter and clothing, says the National Council on Welfare.

The council calculated that the poverty rate for all Canadians dropped to 16.4 per cent in 1998 from 17.8 in 1997. That's still far above the 13.6 per cent of Canadians who lived below the poverty line in 1989, just before the last recession.

As well, about 1.3 million children -- or nearly one-fifth of all Canadian children -- lived in families with incomes below the poverty line. The number of children living in poverty has climbed by 400,000 -- or 42 per cent -- since 1989, and has nearly doubled in Ontario.

In 1998, 18.8 per cent of children under 18 lived in poverty, down from 20.3 per cent in 1997.

John Murphy, chair of the National Council of Welfare, said he was pleased by the drop in poverty in 1998 and is optimistic that the trend has continued as the economy grew throughout 1999 and 2000.

Mr. Murphy noted that Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has committed his government to combatting poverty among children and aboriginals and must now put some flesh on that promise.

The dip in the poverty rate in 1998 "is good news but it is not cause for celebration," he said.

"We need to see sharper and quicker improvements in the lives of the least advantaged people when good times come to the rest of the country."

Mr. Murphy said that increases to social benefits, such as the National Child Benefit, have helped reduce poverty, though many provinces claw back those benefits from people on welfare. He noted that poverty rates among single-parent mothers and their children are "shockingly high."

About 54.2 per cent of women who lead single-parent households live in poverty, accounting for 314,000 women and 546,000 children. Young single parents are particularly likely to be living in poverty -- about 85 per cent of single mothers under 25 lived below the poverty line.

Still, even single-parent families have seen some modest improvement in poverty rates since the mid-1990s, when the economy was struggling to recover from recession and governments were slashing spending to reduce deficits.

The council, which is a citizens' advisory body to the federal Minister of Human Resources, uses Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff, which is when a family must spend more than 55 per cent of its income on the basic necessities of life.

For a family of four in a major city, the poverty line was $32,706; for a similar family in rural Canada, the cutoff was $22,264.

Conservative analysts have criticized the use of the low-income cutoff as a definition of poverty.

Fred McMahon, social-policy director for the Fraser Institute, said using the low-income cutoff "makes no sense at all."

"Poverty has a meaning in the dictionary and it suggests real deprivation," Mr. McMahon said. He said true poverty happens when a family does not have enough income for food, shelter and clothing. By that standard, Canada's poverty rate is about half the level suggested by the council.

However, Charles Purdy of Low-Income Families Together, a Toronto advocacy group, said families who have to spend 60 per cent of their income on food, shelter and clothing do suffer real deprivation in the modern Canadian society.

"The Fraser Institute is pernicious in its definition of poverty. It has an 18th-century view of poverty as destitution."

Mr. Purdy said many urban poor have seen little or no improvement in their situation, particularly as the cost of housing has skyrocketed.

"If you are paying nearly 60 per cent of your income on housing -- as many people are -- you are being forced to go without healthy food or warm clothing or other necessities of life," Mr. Purdy said.

Mr. McMahon said the Liberal government needs to take a broad approach to its fight against child poverty. Noting that most poor families are headed by a parent with little postsecondary education, he urged government to increase funding for education and training, and also for child care to allow young parents the opportunity to upgrade their skills.

He added that governments must also do a better job of forcing fathers to pay child support to help reduce poverty among families headed by single mothers.

He noted that governments had succeeded in reducing poverty among seniors since the Second World War and should do the same for young families.

Poor families, poor children

Poverty rates for families and chldren, 1980 to 1998:

                          Poverty                    Poverty


         Poor families    rate      Poor children    rate


1980       830,000        13.2%       984,000        14.9%


1981       832,000        13.0        998,000        15.2


1982       905,000        14.0      1,155,000        17.8


1983     1,007,000        15.3      1,221,000        19.0


1984     1,032,000        15.6      1,253,000        19.6


1985       963,000        14.3      1,165,000        18.3


1986       924,000        13.6      1,086,000        17.0


1987       895,000        13.1      1,057,000        16.6


1988       851,000        12.2        987,000        15.4


1989       786,000        11.1        934,000        14.5


1990       874,000        12.1      1,105,000        16.9


1991       949,000        13.1      1,210,000        18.3


1992       991,000        13.3      1,218,000        18.2


1993     1,116,000        14.8      1,415,000        20.8


1994     1,108,000        13.7      1,334,000        19.1


1995     1,187,000        14.4      1,441,000        20.5


1996     1,230,000        14.8      1,481,000        20.9


1997     1,212,000        14.7      1,439,000        20.3


1998     1,099,000        13.2      1,327,000        18.8

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