Op-ed: What can possibly explain our failure to address child poverty?
The following op-ed was written by Royce Koop, an associate professor and head of the department of political studies at the U of M. It was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Dec. 3, 2016.
A recently released report awards Manitoba the dubious distinction of having Canada’s highest child poverty rate for the second year in a row. In his research, the University of Manitoba’s Sid Frankel showed that one in 3.5 children in Manitoba is living in poverty. That translates to 85,110 children in this province who are living with the daily realities of being poor.
A Winnipeg Harvest symposium last week provided an opportunity for several parents to put a human face to these statistics. Parents spoke about the daily struggle to put food on the table for their kids, including by visiting stretched-to-capacity food banks. One single mother described extra-curricular activities for her kids as completely prohibitive unless she could obtain charitable assistance for these activities. These stories are heartbreaking for me to read, as I’m sure they are for anyone with the slightest twinge of empathy.
The long-term consequences of child poverty are both numerous and well established, so much so that the American Psychological Association has compiled a veritable online library summarizing them. Two in particular are notable.
First, poverty robs kids of their homes and the security that often comes with them. While the prospect of kids living on the street or in homeless shelters is bad enough, homelessness has many long-term consequences for children. The instability of homelessness for kids means their schooling is often interrupted, and academic achievement suffers accordingly. Children who experience homelessness are, for example, twice as likely as other kids to have a learning disability and repeat a grade at school.
It gets worse
A quarter of homeless children have witnessed violence. And, as though homelessness would not be terrifying enough for kids, fully 22 per cent have been separated from their families for some period of time. Little wonder that half of all school-age children who have experienced homelessness suffer from depression or anxiety.
Second, poverty means kids often don’t get enough to eat. Even kids from occasionally food-insecure homes suffer consequences as a result. Numerous studies have found that hungry kids are less likely to perform well in school, and are more likely to act out in inappropriate ways (such as fighting) and to be anxious or aggressive. Hunger also puts kids at risk for chronic health conditions.
One way to measure hunger is through food bank use. Food Banks Canada recently released a report showing that 61,914 Manitobans had used a food bank in March 2016. This was a slight decline from 2015, when food bank use hit a record high. Nevertheless, Manitoba continues to have the second-highest food bank use rate in the country. Of those 61,914 Manitobans who couldn’t afford enough to eat in March, a stunning 42.9 per cent were children.
As Frankel noted in a recent interview, “Poverty does yield real costs.” Manitoba has a serious problem with child poverty; further, the consequences of this problem will be felt in this province for decades to come.
Child poverty is an example of what political scientists call a valence issue: there is consensus about it. In this case, no one is pleased that child poverty exists and everyone would like to see the problem addressed. Despite this, it’s not happening. In 1989, the House of Commons voted unanimously to bring an end to child poverty by the year 2000. It’s now 16 years on, and child poverty has not been eradicated; to the contrary, it’s become even more widespread and entrenched.
Why is our system still broken?
What can possibly explain this failure to address child poverty despite the belief that it should be addressed?
Conservative Toronto Sun columnist Mark Bonokoski offers a cynical answer: kids living in poverty don’t vote and their parents cannot make sizeable financial contributions to political parties. As a result, child poverty takes a back seat to the concerns of people with more influence, whether in the form of votes or money, to exert over politicians.
I’ve spent time with many politicians, and I think the vast majority of them are good people. I have little doubt all of them are appalled by child poverty rates in Canada. I also know many are doing what they can to address the issue. But there is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in Bonokoski’s argument. Politicians face a veritable cacophony of demands from constituents, well-organized interest groups and others. It’s easy to understand how the quiet voices of deprived children cannot break through the noise.
Another reason why child poverty rates may not be falling despite public revulsion is because there is, at least in the political realm, disagreement on how best to tackle the problem. While advocates and politicians on the left are likely to support direct benefits to children and their families in order to address poverty, politicians on the right are more likely to emphasize the importance of increased employment for lifting families out of poverty.
The latter approach was given a limited voice by Premier Brian Pallister in the recent Manitoba election campaign. In response to questions about the number of children under the care of Child Family Services, Pallister trumpeted his party’s promises to increase the number of jobs in the province. “Poverty and the demand for CFS services are inseparably linked,” said Pallister. “The fewer job opportunities there are for working Manitobans and families, the more demand there will be for CFS services.” In a statement that could well apply to child poverty in Manitoba, Pallister said, “We’re talking about job creation today, because it’s at the cornerstone of how we work out of the dilemma we face.”
Pallister’s statements call to mind the memorable line of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan, that “the best social program is a job.” These arguments are often dismissed as simplistic; however, such “work strategies” are touted by both academics and advocates. The 2016 report issued by Campaign 2000 that addressed child and family poverty in Canada, for example, contains a range of recommendations to increase both employment and wages. These range from pre-apprenticeship training to a national jobs strategy. These measures are designed to indirectly assist children living in poverty by providing well-paying, stable jobs to their parents or guardians.
Precision is needed
In the academic literature, such “work strategies” are often contrasted with “benefit strategies,” in which child poverty is addressed directly through benefits. In a 2007 study, scholars sought to determine whether government should pursue one strategy over the other in order to address the problem of child poverty. Among other results, the study found that both low unemployment levels for families and wide-ranging and generous benefit programs are found in Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries with very low rates of child poverty for children and their families.
The implication is clear: if governments are serious about addressing child poverty, they must combine jobs policies with effective redistribution programs aimed directly at children.
Manitoba has a system of transfers directly to families, but in many cases these benefits are underfunded. Boosting funding to these pre-existing transfers would, together with the benefits of the new Canada child benefit, greatly assist the families of children living in poverty. By directly addressing child poverty, such increases would take pressure off other services, such as food banks and emergency shelters, and avoid many of the downstream costs of child poverty.
To Pallister’s credit, his party campaigned on a number of themes that suggest he is both aware of and committed to addressing this problem.
Families Minister Scott Fielding refused to claw back funding to Employment and Income Assistance as well as other anti-poverty initiatives such as Rent Assist despite an influx of cash from the new Canada child benefit. This decision in particular earned the government praise from advocates for children living in poverty.
Nevertheless, the government has now delivered two throne speeches and a budget, without much in the way of a clear strategy for how to lift children out of poverty beyond plans to increase employment in Manitoba. A jobs strategy will help, but if the government is serious about addressing the problem, a more concrete strategy involving clear benefits to children living in poverty will be needed.
In its 2015 report on child poverty in Manitoba, Campaign 2000 asked a question: “How can we justify allowing one in every 3.5 Manitoba children to grow up in poverty?” I don’t have an answer. Unless you do, it’s time to get on with the task of bringing child poverty to an end in Manitoba.