Children in poverty impacts all of society

Conference Board of Canada statistics indicate that, in 2014, one child out of seven in our country is deemed to live “in poverty,” that is to say, there is insufficient household/family income for these “seventh” children to afford them the comforts that the other six children will take for granted: healthy food, warmth in the winter, adequate clothing for every Canadian season, the expectation of a stress-free education and home life, to name just a few ordinary expectations.

That “one in seven” formula translates to a percentage number of 15.1 percent of kids living in our seemingly wealthy nation born into families unable to provide them with what most Canadians expect will be their lot in life.

In the days of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s second mandate, parliamentarians voted unanimously to end child poverty in Canada by the year 2000, to celebrate the upcoming new millennium (that was, at the time of the vote, more than a decade away) by having ended child poverty by that time.

That optimistic vote was taken in 1989, the year 2000 came and went and now, 25 years after the commitment by the House of Commons, it is still unfulfilled.

According to the Conference Board of Canada’s research, our country scores 15th out of 17 peer countries. We are just behind Italy and slightly worse than Japan. The United States rates 15th with about 22 percent of children 17 years of age and younger living in circumstances where the disposable income is less than half of the median household earnings in that country and, of course, this is the same measure that is applied to Canada and the other 15 countries the Conference Board examined.

So what happened after the parliamentarians in Ottawa unanimously decided that, somehow, a redistribution of wealth was in order in this country back in 1989?

For one thing, the very next year, Canadians entered into one of our periodic episodes of recession and this was a situation that market forces took until 1993 to rectify. But during that period, Canadians’ incomes purchased less and businesses of every stripe, large and small, realigned their priorities with the inevitable loss of jobs.

Canada, and Ontario in particular, saw an enormous outmigration of jobs starting about that time, a trend that, while it has slowed, still continues as the Canadian “branch plants” of international (usually U.S. based) businesses have closed their doors in this country and have correspondingly opened plants in the U.S., Mexico or another offshore country.

The “Great Recession” of 2008 hasn’t helped either as many ordinary Canadians suddenly found that the savings they had invested as a nest egg for their eventual retirement were worth a good deal less from one day to the next.

And so it continues: some people are poor (have as household income less than half of the average Canadian family’s earnings) because of job losses due to worldwide economic forces far beyond their control. Others are ill-equipped for the modern-day workforce because they have insufficient education or marketable skills to qualify them for anything but minimum wage jobs and still others sadly lack, or fail to master, coping strategies required to exist in today’s wired world and this cadre of Canadians is often also lacking in the life skills (living on a budget, shopping strategically) that most people have learned along the way to adulthood.

These are just some of the reasons why Canada, in spite of that optimistic declaration by elected MPs a quarter century ago, has not made the progress on the child poverty file that had been anticipated then.

But this is a goal that we should not, in fact cannot, abandon.

To his credit, John Tory, mayor-elect of Toronto, has already stated that as a priority he will do whatever possible to diminish the level of child poverty in Canada’s largest and wealthiest city.

Toronto will be a good model to follow because it has all to itself a myriad of agencies for whom Mr. Tory’s pledge will, hopefully, inform priorities over the next four years.

For rural places like Manitoulin Island, we share agencies with our neighbours, often in jurisdictions encompassing much of Northeastern Ontario and so the successes Toronto may yield on this important file will be measurable and the methodology can be transferred to rural and Northern reaches of our province.

From the mid-1960s to the present, nearly a 50-year span, two income families have been more and more the norm so that in 2014, one partner acting as the breadwinner while his or her spouse or partner has the traditional homemaker, stay-at-home mom/dad, role is so unusual as to be deemed quaint.

Beginning with the feminist movement of the mid-1960s, women more and more demanded to be in the workplace, at every level.

In traditional two-parent households, as both parents began to work regularly and contribute to the household income, coincidentally the cost of living began to rise concordantly. This is most blatantly obvious in the cost of home buying where, up until about 1968, a single family earner could reasonably expect to pay the bills, including the cost of a home mortgage, from one salary while the other spouse stayed home.

Not any more.

For those families ripped apart by family strife, where one parent has left home and leaving the remaining parent to both support financially and raise the children, there is usually little joy and an expectation that because of these circumstances the children in the home, through no fault of their own, will be raised below the poverty line and be numbered among the “one in seven” kids in Canada living in unfortunate circumstances.

It is our tradition, our expectation, that people either as individuals or as a family unit will as adults be able to look after themselves which, of course, means looking after the children they’re rearing.

Governments of every stripe have been reluctant to give people living in straitened circumstances much more than minimal assistance because they do not want to discourage the attitude of self-sufficiency and in the hopes that people will eventually be able to solve their own problems, hauling themselves up, “by the bootstraps.”

It’s difficult to disagree much with this ideal.

But the social order of the country in which we live has changed so much since the revolutionary times of the mid-1960s that it is barely recognizable.

Unskilled jobs that require no education basically do not exist and, for people who fall into this category and do find work, their earnings are no match for the 21st century price of necessities such as housing, food, transportation and the costs associated with children’s education, even at elementary and high school levels.

Even if someone with a college or university education is forced to continue living with their parents for a few years until their career is underway, they will be, in the course of their working lives, immeasurably better off and able to help care for their eventual children than their classmates who dropped out of high school or took no post-secondary education.

Having a substantial proportion of our country’s youth raised with lowered expectations is not a healthy model for Canada to follow and so we must do whatever is possible to lower this number.

Mayor-elect Tory’s promise was an important statement to Ontarians and Canadians so it will be significant to see how this city, as a microcosm of Canada, attempts to fulfill the new mayor’s dream and promise.

Lowering the number and percentage of financially disadvantaged young people in our country is not merely reaching for an ideal; it is, in fact, of vital concern to the social and fiscal health of the Canada of the future and the other 84.9 percent of the 17-and-under group of young people who will be part of the 100 percent of up-and-coming who will run Canada in their day.

In very practical terms, this is also a public health and public safety issue as a disproportionate number of people convicted of violent crimes were raised in poverty, on the outside looking in at the good life that others seem to take as their right and, feeling they have no particular stake in the country or even their community, they are less constrained to lash out in a wide spectrum of anti-social behavior. Drug abuse and its attendant evils bear a direct relationship to the outsider mentality as we know only too well from various dire events on Manitoulin, right up to murder. Given Toronto’s rising tide of violent crime, this is doubtless a contributing factor to Mayor Tory’s promise.