One in five Ontario children still faces life in poverty, according to a new study.
This remains true despite a pledge in Ottawa, made exactly 25 years ago today, to eliminate child poverty by 2000 and the province’s promise in 2008 to reduce poverty by 25 per cent by 2013.
The national problem has not just lingered. It is worse than it was in 1989.
More than 1.3 million children across the country — 550,000 of them in Ontario — live this way, according to authors of the 2014 report card on child and family poverty.
The odds only get worse for single-parent homes with one child, where the rate of poverty is 44 per cent in Ontario. The numbers are also bleak for First Nations children living on reserves, those with disabilities and children of colour. According to one calculation, half of all Ontario children born to immigrant parents live in poverty.
For all these children, poverty can mean a lack of access to healthy food, affordable shelter and other basic necessities. It means more than half a million Ontario children start life on unequal footing.
And as the wealth of the nation has more than doubled, the report points out that income for the country’s poorest families has essentially flatlined.
“The numbers evoke for me a serious concern about whether our leaders and our policies are reflecting what I think Canadians still value, which is a sense of fairness, and of value in sharing and collective solutions,” said Laurel Rothman, who works with Family Service Toronto and is the national co-ordinator of Campaign 2000, authors of the report.
“We can fix this. You’re not looking for a cure for cancer. We’re looking for the will to use the tools that exist.”
Campaign 2000’s annual report card also shows the province falling behind on its 2008 goal of reducing child poverty by 25 per cent over five years. The most recent data available from 2011 shows only a 9.2 per cent drop.
After the Liberals admitted failure on that target, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government launched a second strategy in September that recommitted to the 25 per cent reduction goal.
The new report calls on both the province and the federal government to create implementation plans that would take concrete steps on jobs, housing, child care and social assistance programs.
“Twenty-five years and one generation later, it is clear that poverty continues to rob children and adults of their dignity and potential,” the report says. “We need to fix the problem of poverty to ensure real progress, for real people, now.”
The report defines the poverty line as Statistics Canada’s After-Tax Low-Income Measure (LIM-AT), which in 2012 was $23,755 for a single parent with one child 16 years old or younger.
The numbers contained in the report are current to 2012, using taxfiler information from Statistics Canada and Canada Child Tax Benefit records. These figures, however, can’t be compared to previous numbers on poverty because the way they are calculated has changed.
In Toronto, an earlier report showed nearly a third of all children — 145,000 of them — live in poverty, ranking it the worst of the country’s major municipalities.
Anju Nair, 45, lives in a one-bedroom apartment near Victoria Park and Danforth Aves. with her 10-year-old daughter.
With a PhD in developmental biology, Nair came to Toronto from India in 2010. Her first priority was finding a home.
She settled on a place in Crescent Town, one of the city’s neighbourhood improvement areas and home to many new immigrants. Since then she has been unable to find work that will allow her to properly care for her daughter.
“I really belong here. I think this is my home now,” Nair said. “Now, it’s getting a job, getting a full-time job. . . . It is challenging and it is overwhelming, but I have to do what I have to do.”
Almost 90 per cent of her employment insurance is needed for rent, leaving little for necessities, even with child benefits and child-care subsidies.
She has found joy in Canada — a large park nearby where her daughter can play, transit that gets her to the store, a place where she feels safe. Her daughter was placed in a gifted program at her school, something she says is a “blessing.”
But Nair is still faced with the monthly question of what to sacrifice. Needs like winter clothes — boots and jackets — become more than a headache.
“It’s not like if you don’t have, you are fine,” she said. “No, it’s about survival.”
The report pushes for the province to make employment a “pathway” out of poverty, especially for single-parent households like Nair’s.
It argues that the minimum wage needs to increase to $15 per hour in 2015 in order to push people 10 per cent over the low-income measure used to define poverty. Currently, the province’s $11 minimum wage — raised in June after being frozen at $10.25 — still leaves single parents below that line.
The report notes the work available to Ontarians is leaving them with few options to earn a living. In 2009, the province saw a 50 per cent increase in involuntary part-time employment and a 75 per cent spike in long-term unemployment.
Still, as of 2011, nearly 40 per cent of children in poverty lived with families who had full-time, year-round work.
Another way to fast-track results on the child poverty file, the report argues, is to increase the Ontario Child Benefit for each family annually by $100 over five years. It also calls on Ottawa to increase the Canada Child Tax Benefit/National Child Benefit for low-income families to a $5,600 maximum from $3,687.
Rothman said other industrialized wealthy nations have made decisions to both prevent poverty and keep poverty rates low.
“The country deserves to have its wealth better distributed,” she said. “There’s no question that political will has a lot to do with it.”
In September, NDP MP (Scarborough–Rouge River) Rathika Sitsabaiesan introduced a private member’s motion to eradicate child poverty with a national reduction plan, one that has “measurable targets and timelines.”
Rothman knows that motions are sometimes just motions and that 25 years later, sometimes little gets done.
“Can we make that into an action plan? I hope so,” she said. “The homework’s done.”
Deputy premier Deb Matthews, the minister responsible for the province’s new poverty reduction strategy, said Sunday night the province is committed to “targeted investments and supports” that will reduce child poverty, including $15 billion spent this year on children’s and social services, access to health benefits and investing in supportive housing.
“Our first strategy set an ambitious target and we made progress. Unfortunately, the federal government did not make adequate investments to help Ontario meet its goals in the first poverty reduction strategy,” Matthews said in an emailed statement, adding the global recession also prevented them from reaching the first 25 per cent reduction target. “Our government is committed to funding programs based on evidence. We must invest in programs and policies that demonstrate measurable evidence showing that they work to make people’s lives better.”
Even as groups like Ontario Campaign 2000 continue to track child poverty, they are left with fewer tools. The cancellation of both the federal long-form census and the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics that offered a window into homes leaves fewer sources for data collection.
Nair, meanwhile, is considering going back to school to study cardiology technology.
“I think I have all the skills,” she said. “I’m qualified.”
Many in her place, she knows, have been less lucky — facing language, cultural and other barriers. She dreams of some day working in social services, to help those newcomers navigate a complex and often frustrating system and give back some of the small fortune she has found.
“I have met with incredible people,” she said. “They have been kind to me and that keeps me going.”