Inequality At Its Worst

The Scrooges in Canada are stealing our kids’ Christmas
December 1, 2012

On Christmas morning this year, how many children in Canada will wake to find no toys from Santa, no new clothes or shoes to replace their threadbare garb, no turkey dinner cooking in the oven, no joyful celebration of the annual Christian feast?

Many of the million or more impoverished children among us will be fortunate that day. Thanks to relatives, friends, and charities, they'll have toys to play with at Christmas, warm new clothing to wear, and a traditional holiday meal to allay their hunger. But many thousands of other indigent children and their parent(s) will not be so lucky. They will have no relatives or neighbours to help them; and there are limits to the number of the poor the food banks, the Salvation Army, and other charities can help. The growing number of homeless Canadians are especially vulnerable. And even the fortunate poor families who benefit from the charity of others at Christmas will soon find themselves slipping back into the blight of penury as the holiday season wanes.

This appalling and persistently high rate of child poverty besmirches Canada's image and international reputation. A country that is so bountifully endowed with wealth and resources has no excuse for failing to provide all its citizens – especially the youngest -- with a comfortable and secure standard of living.

Instead, one in eight Canadian children is living in poverty, and, even worse, one in four Aboriginal children shares the same grim fate.

No wonder the UN's Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter, after visiting Canada earlier this year, was moved to deliver this stinging rebuke: "What I have seen in Canada is a system that presents barriers for the poor to access nutritious diets and that tolerates increased inequalities between rich and poor..."

Canada's rate of child poverty – 15% – is three times higher than that of the Scandinavian countries and also much higher than the rates of most other nations in Europe. The OECD now ranks Canada 22nd-worst out of its 31 member countries in terms of its level of child poverty.

Even the Conference Board of Canada – no radical left-wing agency – deplored our country's neglect of children in its annual report last year: "Children who experience poverty, especially persistently, are at higher risk of suffering health problems, developmental delays, and behaviour disorders. They tend to attain lower levels of education, and are more likely to continue living in poverty as adults."

The ranks of poverty have been swelled by the many thousands of Canadians who have had their livelihoods destroyed by the 2008-09 financial crash. Employers in both the private and public sectors have resorted to mass layoffs, prolonging the ensuing Great Recession. The official unemployment rate of less than 8% and the estimated number of nearly 1.4 million Canadians out of work greatly understates the actual extent of unemployment, particularly among our youth. A recent Statistic Canada study found that nearly a million young Canadians between the ages of 16 and 29 are not in school or working, and that half of them have giving up looking for a job.

They are being called the NEET generation – Not in Employment, Education, or Training. Shockingly, an estimated one-third of them are university or college graduates.

The bleak economic outlook has been worsened by the decision of governments at all levels to cut spending and payrolls in a misguided effort to reduce their deficits. They should be spending more to stimulate the economy and create more jobs, but have rejected the Keynesian solutions that helped millions during the Great Depression.

In effect, our federal and most provincial governments have drafted the poor and jobless to serve as deficit-fighters. Somehow their collective anguish – their lost incomes, their hassles with the bill-collectors, their families' deepening deprivations – will help the politicians balance their budgets. It never will. All such callous, brutal, unfair policies will do is increase the country's economic and social malaise. With so many people forced to rely on unemployment and welfare relief instead of being productive (and tax-paying) workers, the cost in financial terms amounts to many billions more than any anticipated "savings" that could be made.

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How can our government leaders be so flinthearted? How can they sleep at night when so many children suffer from their mistreatment and neglect? Back in 1989, every MP in the House of Commons – those on the government benches as well as the opposition -- passed a resolution to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. They not only broke that unanimous pledge, but their successors in Parliament have since allowed many thousands more children to become mired in poverty.

How does this political indifference to the anguish of so many children continue? Most likely it is maintained because of the invisibility of the victims. That 800,000 children are poor and hungry is merely a statistic that can be shrugged off. I wonder what would be the reaction of MPs if all those impoverished kids were to walk through the aisles of the House of Commons, one by one, their sad, pinched faces and underfed bodies plain to see. It would take many weeks for all 800,000 to walk by. At what point, if any, would the MPs of all parties become so guilt-stricken that they would stop the awful parade of poverty? At what point would they renew their predecessors' broken promise – and this time, really mean it?

Perhaps they could be persuaded that eradicating the poverty of children – and substantially reducing the poverty of adults as well – would be economically as well as morally justified. Why is it so hard for our political leaders to understand that children trapped in poverty, when they grow up, will be less skilled and productive, be sick more often and more seriously, and be more likely to engage in criminal activities?

A few years ago, the Center for American Progress, a progressive think-tank in Washington, did a study on the economic costs of child poverty in the United States. Their researchers calculated that Americans who were poor as children – there were 37 million of them at the time, now probably 40 million or more – were much more likely than other citizens to be less productive workers, to need more health care, and to commit more crimes.

The cost to the U.S. in crime, health care, and reduced productivity associated with child poverty was estimated to be $500 billion a year. This breaks down to about $170 billion a year in increased crime, $160 billion in increased health care costs, and another $170 billion in decreased productivity.

We have to be careful about applying these U.S. statistics to Canada. We can't just make a demographic projection and assume that, because our population is roughly one-tenth that of the U.S., the overall economic cost of child poverty in this country amounts to one-tenth the U.S. figure, or about $50 billion a year. It could be less, it could be more. But, even making a conservative estimate, it's safe to assume that the economic cost of child poverty in Canada amounts to at least $40 billion a year. That's an awful lot of money that's being wasted, in effect, to maintain an infamously high poverty rate rather than lower or eliminate it.

How many break-ins or robberies in Canada are committed from desperation by people deprived in their youth of adequate food and shelter and in their adulthood of the legitimate means of earning money? How many violent crimes are committed by people so embittered by poverty-stricken youth that they vent their rage in anti-social behaviour? Such crimes, of course, are inexcusable, but most could probably be prevented if everyone was provided with a safe, secure, happy childhood. (It is a sad commentary on the Harper government's fixation with "crime-fighting" that it has decided to spend $3.6 billion on the construction of more prisons instead of helping poor children stay out of prison when they grow up.)

The same rationale applies to health care and incomes. Poor people tend to have poor health because they're denied proper nutrition and preventive care as children. Poor kids are also denied the physical, mental, and emotional potential to acquire the best education, so many of them end up in low-waged, dead-end jobs – or no jobs at all.

UNICEF now ranks Canada in a dismal 19th place among 26 rich nations in its rate of child poverty and neglect. It's shameful and inexcusable – and it's as much an economic as moral disgrace because the financial wherewithal to end child poverty is so readily available.

One of the most essential but missing services for our children is a national and accessible child care program. Canada has the lowest child care access rate in the industrialized world, with regulated spaces for fewer than 20% of young children. Our fees for child care – with the notable exception of Quebec – are among the highest anywhere, often exceeding university tuition fees. And the quality of the child care that is available in Canada's inferior market-based system is constantly undermined by the low wages and poor retention rates for early childhood educators.

The perennial spurious excuse from our federal and provincial governments (again excepting Quebec, which has the best day care program in the country) is that "we'd like to have better child care, but we can't afford it." In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Canada can't afford not to build a national, accessible, affordable, quality child care system. And the best time to do so is during a recession, because such a project would be one of the best ways to boost the flagging economy.

Economist Robert Fairholm, who did a study on child care in 2010, found that 1) every dollar invested in child care increases GDP by $2.30; 2) every $1 million invested in child care generates about 40 jobs; and 3) more than 90% of the cost of hiring child care workers goes back to governments as increased revenue. Over the long term, every dollar put into quality child care returns $2.54 in benefits to society.

Fairholm's study, as with all similar studies, was ignored by Canadian governments. Their indifference denies most of our children the best possible start in life, forces women to pay an economic penalty for parenting and working, and keeps Canada far behind other developed countries in providing such an important family and community service.

Failing to establish a national child care program is just one of the ways our governments are perpetuating child poverty instead of reducing it. Other failures include improving welfare and EI rates; building more and better low-cost housing; lowering tax rates on the working poor (and raising them on the lazy rich); increasing access to job training; raising minimum wages; and facilitating more union organizing and collective bargaining.

The moral imperative for implementing these anti-poverty policies is obviously not enough to sway the Scrooges in Canada's legislatures and boardrooms. But why they also ignore the economic imperative – the enormous financial and material benefits to be derived from lifting children out of poverty – defies explanation.

Scrooge was eventually humanized. So was the Grinch. But the Tiny Tims and the Whos in Canada's Whoville face still another forlorn and wretched Christmas.

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor.)