Hyer on the Hill – The Best Country for Children

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This year’s Throne Speech repeated promises heard long ago: “We will ensure that Canada remains the best place in the world to raise a family.” said the government.  Such a great sentiment. If only it were believable.

Currently, over 600,000 children in Canada live in poverty. With a whopping number like this, how can we view ourselves as a society that puts children first? The most recent federal budget contained yet another hefty corporate tax cut. And yet there was next to nothing in the budget to help Canada’s children. For a country as rich as ours, the lack of action is appalling.

We cannot lay blame entirely on one budget. For years, the federal government has been ignoring the needs of our children. In 1989, Parliament passed an historic resolution endorsed by all parties to eliminate child poverty in our country by 2000. In the years following, Canada prospered. But not everyone got their fair share, least of all the children. Wealth was funneled to high income-earners: the incomes of the top 10% in Canada grew. However, the income for average families and low-earning families actually stayed the same, counting inflation. By 2007, for every dollar the poorest 10% earned, the wealthiest families with children earned almost 12 times as much.

At the same time, the federal government cut funding social programs to help low-income families. Despite repeated promises, the government never delivered on a proposed national daycare program. The Canada Assistance Plan with the provinces was cancelled. Moreover, the government further increased the gap between rich and poor by changing the income-tax system to benefit the wealthiest in our society.

Twenty years after Parliament vowed to eliminate it, the child poverty rate in Canada has remained the same. Our First Nations’ communities in particular suffered: 1 in 4 Aboriginal children live in deep poverty today. Almost 27,000 Aboriginal children have been removed from their families, mostly due to poverty.

Canadians endure a host of negative impacts from our persistent child poverty problem. Destitute parents suffer much higher infant mortality rates. Poor children are more likely to have problems at school such as failing grades and dropping out, and exhibit aggressive behaviour. Moreover, poverty affects physical health, with greater hospital stays for children who are poor. The widespread problem of childhood obesity in Canada is ballooning into a real epidemic amongst poor families – it now costs more to buy fresh, healthy food than it does to buy junk food.

It’s sobering to compare Canada to other developed countries, and realize we have little reason to pride ourselves for living in a particularly child-friendly nation. Recently, the Conference Board of Canada ranked wealthy countries in terms of child poverty rates. Canada rated 13th out of 17 countries. Countries that ranked highest included Denmark, Sweden and Finland, each with less than 5% child poverty – less than a third of Canada’s. Scandinavian policies enabling people to balance work and parenting, like flexible parental leave and universal daycare, can take a lot of credit. As well, these countries have social policies that aim to reduce the income inequality that arises naturally from the marketplace.

A budget that places the needs of our children at its core would go a long way to fixing our long-term child poverty problem. Instead of buying fighter jets or rewarding bankers for jobs poorly done, we could invest in the health, education and security of our children …and make government actions match government words. Things like universal child care, early childhood education or affordable housing so children can grow up in healthy environments. The dividends our country and our children would reap in years to come will make the investment a wise one. Then and only then could we truly ensure that Canada is the best place in the world for families.

Bruce Hyer, MP