VANCOUVER—One in four British Columbia children are living in poverty—the highest of any province—according to a report by an advocacy group that calls for governments across Canada to change the conditions of the country’s poorest children.
The report, by anti-poverty group Campaign 2000, paints B.C. as the worst offender in a country where the gap between rich and poor families is growing and where children of aboriginals and recent immigrants are hardest hit.
Released yesterday for the first ministers conference in Kelowna, the report was timed for the anniversary of a 1989 unanimous vote by the House of Commons to eliminate child poverty by 2000, Campaign 2000 co-ordinator Laurel Rothman said.
Michael Goldberg, a B.C. advocate who worked on the report, said the government has to increase minimum wage, eliminate the controversial $6-an-hour training wage, and end restrictions on welfare rolls that he said have pushed people to low-paying jobs.
“They were meant to get good jobs, but they didn’t,” he said. “And you didn’t have that policy anywhere else in Canada.”
B.C.’s child poverty rate, measured by the proportion of children living in households earning less than a regionally specific low-income cutoff, is more than double that of Prince Edward Island, which had the lowest poverty rate, at 11.3 per cent.
B.C.’s rate jumped from 20 per cent in 2001 to about 24 per cent in 2002 and 2003. In that time, the national average stayed stubbornly close to its current value, 17.6 per cent.
Nearly half of the children of recent immigrants are poor, said Ms. Rothman, while 40 per cent of aboriginal children and 33 per cent of children in visible minorities live in poverty.
That should make the federal Liberals think twice about a plan to boost immigration to 300,000 over the next five years, she said.
Waiting at the Vancouver Salvation Army with her two-year-old son River, 25-year-old Francine Jennings said she’s part of an impoverished urban-native population and doesn’t want her children to grow up poor.
Even after finishing high school and college, the single mother struggles to raise her son with only $150 in welfare and a $266 child tax credit left after rent.
“You prioritize,” she said. “You say, is it more important for him to have a toy or for him to have diapers,” Ms. Jennings said.
There’s no money for her to buy clothes or a dehumidifier to reduce mould in her apartment that exacerbates River’s asthma, and she must count pennies or her son won’t get milk at the end of the month, she said.”It’s stressful,” she said.
Claude Richmond, the Minister of Employment and Income Assistance, said the advocacy group’s figures are two years out of date and added that it was economic conditions inherited from the previous NDP government that caused the spike in child-poverty figures.
More than 100,000 people are no longer on the welfare rolls, he said, and 250,000 jobs have been created since his government took office. And the best way to help poor children, the minister said, is to get their parents a job.
“The biggest problems we had were getting the economy turned around,” he said. “It took time to change the culture from one of entitlement and dependency to one of employment and self-reliance.”
It isn’t necessary to raise the minimum wage from $8 an hour because the market has done so already, he said.
“The minimum wage thing is really a red herring because I know that there’s almost no people working for minimum wage unless it’s an entry-level job in the fast-food business or the tourism industry.”
Captain John Murray of the B.C. Salvation Army said he is seeing more poor people this Christmas season, although Parliament’s 1989 motion to eliminate child poverty was a noble goal.
Nearly one in four B.C. children was living in poverty in 2003, a number that translates to about 201,000 youngsters.
Child poverty rates, 2003
British Columbia: 23.9%
Nova Scotia: 20.7%
New Brunswick: 17.3%
SOURCE: STATISTICS CANADA