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Enough with Child Poverty 'Band-aids': BC Teachers' Union

While some teachers decry 'just incredible poverty,' the province says its policies are already reducing the rates.

Katie Hyslop 21 Nov

Katie Hyslop reports on education and youth issues for The Tyee Solutions Society. Follow her on Twitter.

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Annual report card finds B.C. still holds the second-highest child poverty ranking in the country for another year. Band-aid image via Shutterstock.

The latest statistics for child poverty in 2010 show British Columbia held onto its second-highest child poverty ranking in the country for the second year in a row. But while Manitoba has again taken the undesirable top spot, B.C. still has more poor children than the national average.

The 2012 Child Poverty Report Card released this morning by First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition shows B.C.'s child poverty rate fell in 2010 to 10.5 per cent after tax from 12 per cent the year before. Higher than the national average of 8.2 per cent, First Call estimates 87,000 children in the province live in poverty.

For the BC Teachers' Federation, this comes as little surprise. They contend teachers in B.C. deal with child poverty every day: kids coming to school without food, wearing the same clothes for days, or living in substandard, over-crowded housing.

There's little individual teachers can do to challenge poverty on their own. But as a union, the BCTF is focusing on the cause this month more than ever as part of their Year of Action leading up to May's provincial election.

"We know B.C. has led the country in high rates of child poverty for a long time now," said Susan Lambert, BCTF president. "We're also one of the very few provinces that don't have a child poverty reduction plan, and our contention is that unless you take on the work of developing a plan, setting goals, setting guidelines, you will never, ever address the issue."

B.C. is just one of two provinces and territories without a poverty reduction plan, but not every province with a plan -- like Manitoba, which has had one since 2009 -- is succeeding in the fight.

Instead of a provincial plan, the B.C. government opted for a series of community-based poverty reduction plans, which it says will suit communities' different needs.

"Our community poverty reduction strategies are meant to complement the targeted supports we are providing at the provincial level, with a focus on reducing poverty, mitigating its effects and supporting services for low-income families at a community level," reads an emailed statement from the B.C. Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD).

The plans do not come with any new funding, however, which critics say is needed to move families out of poverty. With an election looming, the teachers' union is determined to make child poverty a hot button issue and convince the next government to follow the rest of the country in pledging to make a provincial plan to reduce it.

'Just incredible poverty'

The teachers' union has long been an anti-poverty advocate. In recent years, including this year, they have hosted First Call's Child Poverty Report Card press briefing in their Vancouver headquarters. They also conduct professional development workshops like "Teachers Can Make A Difference for Children Living in Poverty," designed to help teachers meet the needs of students living in poverty.

The Tyee was invited to attend the most recent "Teachers Can Make A Difference" workshop in Surrey on Nov. 9, where teachers from inner city and affluent schools in the Surrey School District detailed their struggles with educating children who live in poverty.

"In the classroom a few of my kids everyday don't have breakfast or food, and most of my class is on the lunch program. I'd say every kid but one," said one teacher. All but one of the teachers attending the workshop asked not to be named because of an obligation to the school board.

"Most of them don't have clean clothes, aren't getting picked up after school -- just incredible poverty."

Another teacher recalled how one student's year-long struggle with head lice made her wish she could do more: "You just want to take the kids home. I'm at a more affluent school now, and my husband likes that because I don't come home crying," she said.

"If I could, I would have adopted them all. But you can't do that realistically."

For their month-long anti-poverty campaign, the union is focusing on their platform from their Better Schools for BC document, which serves as the basis for the entire Year of Action, using a different platform from the document as a cause for every month.

One of their actions in November has been collecting signatures for petitions addressed to municipal governments in B.C., asking them to pressure the provincial government to create a province-wide poverty reduction plan.

"I'm hoping we can change government's mind," said Lambert. In addition to making it difficult to for children to learn, Lambert says poverty is often a catalyst for bullying.

"This is a premier, for heaven's sake, who talks about the family, who's on the bullying bandwagon all the time, but actually hasn't done anything that would help alleviate conditions that led to stresses in families and that lead to bullying."

Child poverty dropping: MCFD

First Call makes 15 recommendations in the 2012 Child Poverty Report Card, including increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to the cost of living, raising social assistance rates, and introducing an affordable childcare plan.

But the organization also agrees with the BCTF's recommendation for solving child poverty in B.C.: create a comprehensive, accountable poverty reduction plan with set timelines and targets.

Regarding Manitoba's child poverty issues despite having a comprehensive poverty reduction plan, Lorraine Copas, executive director of the Social Planning and Research Council of BC (SPARC BC), which collaborated with First Call on the report card, says Manitoba's situation could be unique.

"You'd have to look at what's behind (Manitoba's numbers); they could have a certain economic situation that's resulted in a situation (with child poverty)," she said at the report card launch this morning.

"I haven't looked fully at Manitoba's (plan), but it's actually how you structure your programs, what types of clawbacks you put into place, what types of incentives you've actually put into place to help people move out of poverty, and what you can do to prevent others from falling into poverty."

But the government says its strategy for reducing poverty is already working. So far seven communities have poverty reduction plans in the works, with a goal of eventually creating plans for 47 B.C. communities. These plans will work in conjunction with province-wide changes such as the increase of minimum wage to $10.25 and an increase of allowable earned income for people on social assistance and disability.

"Since 2003, B.C.'s child poverty rate has dropped by 45 per cent (19.2 per cent in 2003 to 10.5 per cent in 2010)," reads MCFD's statement, which uses the after-tax child poverty statistics that take into account the redistribution of income through income taxes, helping to bring some families above Statistics Canada's Low-Income Cut-Off line.

"This is a higher rate of decline than the national average. In fact, B.C.'s poverty rate is at its second-lowest point in since 1980; it was only lower in 2008 -- before the recession."

Adrienne Montani, First Call's provincial coordinator, says government must also take credit for the increase in child poverty to 23.9 per cent in 2003 from 17 per cent before tax in 2001. First Call uses before tax numbers because it says they're more reliable in small sample sizes, like smaller communities, than after-tax numbers.

"When you start to get down to looking at single parents or looking at smaller communities, how many are working full-time, full-year, the sample size we get from Stats Canada starts to get very small and sometimes less reliable," she said.

In addition to expanding the local plans to include 47 different communities, the only hint MCFD offered for other future government poverty reduction strategies was to continue its focus on job creation in the province.

"We know that one of the best ways to help people out of poverty is to ensure they have a job. That's why we are focused on a job creation plan to strengthen the economy and create and protect jobs for families in every region of B.C. Since February 2011, B.C. has added 56,500 jobs to the economy," reads the statement.

The Child Poverty Report shows, however, that 43 per cent of children living in poverty before tax had at least one parent with a full-time job.

Charity versus policy

Other aspects of the BCTF's child poverty reduction plan this month include canvassing their members for the effects of child poverty in their classrooms, and encouraging them to put up posters and wear stickers with bandages on them symbolizing the need to end "band-aid" solutions like charity and fundraising and replace them with policy changes.

The Vancouver Sun Children's Fund Adopt-A-School program is arguably the most successful fundraiser for inner city schools in the Lower Mainland. Last year Adopt-A-School raised just under $800,000 in donations from the public and matched funds from corporations for everything from clothing and food to field trips and new library books.

But Gillian Shaw, a reporter for the Vancouver Sun and member of the Children's Fund board, doesn't view Adopt-A-School as a charity.

"It's a role that everyone plays," Shaw told The Tyee. "You want to try and help the kids who are going hungry in your own neighbourhood, just as you help an older person who can't shovel their walk."

At the BCTF's child poverty workshop in Surrey, however, teachers expressed their frustration with charity involvement in schools. While they appreciate the money and supplies, they resent competing with other schools for scarce charitable dollars.

For Denise Moffat, an art teacher in Surrey, the presence of charities for public schools means funding decisions are left up to the wealthy who decide which public programs receive funding and which ones don't.

"I just see as our disparity grows that we're moving more to this idea like the United States has where we're a charity nation, where the rich just selectively give to the causes that speak to them. I won't be popular for saying this, but taxation is supposed to be the equitable redistribution of wealth," said Moffat, who is a member of the BCTF executive but doesn't speak for the union.

"To me, the solution is looking at how we fund our tax base and how we then choose to distribute that tax base to people to fully support them in their communities, rather than allowing those who can selectively pick and choose who they support."  [Tyee]

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