Recently, our granddaughter wondered what would happen to all the pennies when they stopped making them. When being told that there are people and groups collecting them and turning them into banks for dollars to support a good cause, immediately she wanted to collect them from family and friends. On being asked what she would collect them for, there was no hesitation. In her six-year-old world, she is aware that children come to school without breakfast and certainly don’t have a recess snack. She would collect her pennies for children in her school who needed help with basic nutrition.
It was almost 25 years ago that Canada’s leaders gathered in the House of Commons to unanimously pass a major but daunting goal: to eliminate poverty among Canadian children by the year 2000. As a former teacher who daily dealt with the challenge of poverty, I knew this goal was unattainable, but reductions were essential.
The most recent statistics released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives show that child poverty has not only lingered, but for the first time since 2003, it is on the rise. In Nova Scotia, 8.2 per cent of kids live below the poverty line. That’s up from a low in 2008 of 7.9 per cent. In one of the first articles I wrote after the NDP came to government, I said the poverty issue would be one of the measuring sticks by which they would be judged at the end of their term. The jury is not out on this issue - from our precious children to one in 13 seniors living in poverty, the verdict is before us. Debbie Reimer, the executive director of the Kids Action Program in Canning, which offers a wide variety of services to Valley families, has expressed disappointment in our country and I sure feel the same about our province.
In reviewing the data reported last year, certain types of families continue to experience much higher rates of child poverty compared to other family types. The most vulnerable are children in families living on welfare incomes, because no matter the family type, welfare incomes fall far below any poverty measure. Children living in a lone female parent family are also more likely to live in poverty rather than children in two-parent families. One in four of the children live below the poverty line as measured by Stats Canada’s After Tax Low Income Cut-off. They are some of the mothers who, in January and February, are found at the Valley service stations with their 20-litre jugs for furnace oil. They cannot afford a $100 order, let alone the $200 minimum delivery. Thanks to government’s corporate handout of $590 million dollars to six companies (two of which have left the province) there is $400,000 less in the Salvation Army’s Good Neighbour Energy Fund due to a 50 per cent cut by the NDP.
A few if the other troubling trends in Nova Scotia and especially concerning, given the research on the critical development of the early years, is the fact that children under six experienced higher poverty rates than all children under 18. In addition, children of aboriginal identity, inter-racial children, children with disabilities and immigrant children have the highest poverty rates of all. Another extremely disturbing trend is that an increasing number of poor children in our province live in families where there is at least one full-time/full-year wage earner. Just over half of all poor children (51.9 per cent) lived in working families.
Stella Lord, co-ordinator of the Community Coalition to End Poverty in Nova Scotia, is shocked that child poverty has only been reduced by 3.7 percentage points since that House of Commons announcement in 1989. She goes on to say that recent increases in the minimum wage, the Nova Scotia child benefit and the affordability tax credit will help, but it is doubtful that on their own they will be sufficient to end child and family poverty.
There are a number of poverty reduction principles and programs that have been instrumental in steps to progress. Most of those that have resulted in measured improvement that have been targeted interventions, such as People Worx skill developments programs. From many sources there is the view that a comprehensive Early Learning Strategy will address many unmet needs facing the next generation of Nova Scotian children. In fact, this must become the basic pathway to ending poverty for the $14,000 children in our province living below the LICO (after-tax Low Income Cut Off)
Pennies for meeting the pains of poverty are a child’s reaction, but I find it a profound call to action for the next government. Corporate welfare must end and the welfare of each and every child must be the highest priority, for families who are poor are even poorer in 2013.