Column: Time to stop just talking about poverty

This month, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released their annual Child Poverty Report and the numbers are pretty grim.

Somewhere out there, one in five children in British Columbia goes to bed hungry, is dressed in torn or ragged clothing, can’t wash properly because the home has no electricity, can never get warm because they have no heat, is bullied at school because they smell bad, is socially excluded because they look bad, and face the endless day to day emotional cruelty of poverty through no fault of their own.

In 1989, the Government of Canada promised to end child poverty by 2000. But by 2012 – just 12 years after their due date – not only had no sign of reduction surfaced but there had actually been an increase in B.C.’s child poverty rate from 15.5 per cent based on 118,300 children to 20.6 per cent representing 169,420 children.

That’s enough children to fill Prospera Centre 28 times.

Now, a quarter of a century after that promise, one fifth of B.C.’s children live at the same level of poverty as they did in 1989. And, to its disgrace, British Columbia has had the highest poverty rate in Canada for the last 13 years.

Why?

This month, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released their annual Child Poverty Report and the numbers are pretty grim. The organization has been tracking poverty rates in B.C. since 1994 when their first report showed then that one in five children (over 170,000) lived in poverty. Clearly nothing’s changed.

The organization has called on the B.C. government to get over its denial and act by adopting a comprehensive provincial poverty reduction plan with legislated targets and timelines. All other provinces have one except B.C.

A poverty reduction plan addresses boots-on-the-ground needs that could include an increased minimum wage, increased welfare and disability rates, an increase in social housing units, expanded essential health services to include services like dental and optical, more accessible  post-secondary education, and breaking down the barriers that confound marginalized people.

Sure, it’ll cost all of us. But it could also propel thousands of poor families away from the poverty line and toward more rewarding jobs, more disposable income, and a taxation rate that puts money back in the public purse.

Poverty, and all its social and medical ills, is a low-wage story. B.C.’s minimum wage, at $10.25 an hour, is among the lowest in the country and hasn’t been reviewed in nearly three years. Yet the province is one of the most expensive to live in with essential costs – food and rent – ever increasing.

It’s bad enough when both parents struggle but in a single parent family the challenges are staggering. According to First Call, 49.5 per cent of children up to 17 years of age live in single parent families compared with 13.2 per cent of children of the same age who live in two-parent families. And for a single parent to be able to work, they must find affordable child care which is virtually impossible unless an accommodating relative lives close by.

First Call’s report stated that, according to the 2011 census, 81 per cent of children in single parent families were in single mother families. Single moms not only typically earn less than men but they also earn less over time than childless women. Yet they face the greatest expenses.

Poverty costs all of us. Many studies have shown that poverty is linked to poor health, young people in trouble with the law, more policing, higher rates of incarceration, and higher justice system costs. Poverty can drain community services, put families under high stress, and undermine the cognitive development of young children due to poor nutrition.

There was never a more urgent time for a poverty reduction plan.