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UNICEF calls for 'Children's Commissioner' to improve kids' equality

Canadian children in poor families are suffering from a widening inequality gap, according to a UNICEF report published December 3. But, it says, Canada can take measures to improve their future.

The report, titled The Children Left Behind, documents the situation of children in 24 of the world's richest countries. The report argues that Canada's kids are about in the middle. In material wellbeing, we rank 17th out of 24, though Canadian kids' education wellbeing is above average and so is their health. The report says:

Family income has a huge influence on virtually all aspects of child development. A large gap leads not only to squandered individual lives but also to poorer average levels of well being for all children. The heaviest costs of falling behind are paid by the child.

But unnecessary inequality presents a large bill to taxpayers in higher social expenditures and the loss to economic competitiveness resulting from a large number of children failing to develop to their potential. Closing the gap is crucial to Canada’s capacity to support an aging population and a competitive economy.

A closer look presents a mixed picture. It’s a concern that the inequality gap in family income is very wide in Canada, far below the average among wealthy nations.

The report says Canadian policies can help address these problems:

In Canada, the most effective mix of policies must deal with the fact that full-time employment no longer guarantees an income above the “poverty line.” Most Canadian children in low-income families have at least one parent who is employed, and a third have a parent working full time, year-round who still can’t earn enough to provide adequate conditions for childhood.

UNICEF says Canadians should adopt six steps to “make a real and lasting difference for children”:

1. Establish a national Children’s Commissioner to ensure the best interests of children are considered in policy decisions that affect them, and services and policies affecting children are coordinated across government so all Canadian children have equitable access to and benefit from them.

2. Report on the state of children, regularly and publicly, using a range of indicators related to the conditions for good child development and the degree of equality, to guide good public policy.

3. Provide Canadians a clear account of public expenditures on children, federally and provincially, with a “children’s budget” to monitor the degree to which children have a fair share of the nation’s resources invested in their development.

4. Apply a Child Impact Assessment to policy decisions affecting children to ensure they prioritize children’s best interests and do not have a disproportionately negative impact on struggling children, including in the negotiations for federal-provincial social and health transfers.

5. Set a national strategy to eliminate child poverty in the context of a national poverty reduction strategy – linked to health, education, child care, economic goals and other policy areas. This includes the need to set a family income level sufficient for good child development outcomes, and recalibrate family benefits and taxation to improve equity.

6. Close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children in Canada with a change in policy to fund appropriate services including health, education and protection at a level equal to those for other Canadian children.

The report echoes The Rise of Canada’s Richest 1%, published this week by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, documenting the growing wealth of the top 1 percent of Canadians and the growing income gap between them and the rest of the population.

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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