Eighteen years after the federal government’s self-imposed deadline for ending child poverty, one in five kids in B.C. are still poor.
For some groups — visible minorities, Indigenous families and new immigrants — the rate is even higher.
According to the child poverty report card released yesterday by First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, the families-with-children poverty rate in B.C. in 2016 was 20.3 per cent after tax.
But if kids were Indigenous, racialized or recent immigrants, the poverty rates were much higher: 23 per cent for visible minority families; 31 per cent for Indigenous families off reserve and 44 per cent on reserve; and 45 per cent for recent immigrant families, First Call reports, based on census data from 2015.
Half of all kids in single-parent families were living in poverty, and 36,000 children in families on income or disability assistance were living below the poverty line, an increase of nearly 2,650 children since the last report.
Those children, dependent on assistance rates set by the government, are living in what First Call says is “legislated poverty.”
Poverty doesn’t affect all kids in B.C. equally.
Indigenous children and poverty
Scott Clark, acting president of the North West Indigenous Council, which represents off-reserve Indigenous people in B.C., isn’t surprised by the report.
“Besides the obvious reasons of the ongoing issues around colonialism, is the reality that here in British Columbia there is no place at the provincial or federal government to have urban, off-reserve Aboriginal issues even talked about,” he said. “So what we find clear across this country, and we see it here in the Downtown Eastside, is we ghettoize all vulnerable folks, particularly urban Indigenous.”
There are solutions. First Call’s report card recommends fully funding child welfare, education and health-care services for kids on reserves, as called for by the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal in 2016.
Clark says government also has to recognize that Indigenous people living off reserve are ignored and deserve attention and consultation.
Clark, who is also executive director of the Aboriginal Life in Vancouver Enhancement Society, points to the Our Place model the society has been championing for years.
At Our Place, based at the Ray-Cam Co-operative Centre at the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a coalition of organizations including the school board, park board, city and ALIVE provide families with one-stop services like free meals, access to medical professionals, parenting classes, after-school groups and recreation facilities.
While Our Place’s services are open to all low-income families in the area, they’re particularly important for the many Indigenous people living in the neighbourhood who are far from their bands or without a band connection.
“All the folks that are living in the streets, all the people that are dying from the opiate crisis, the children dying in care, the missing and murdered Indigenous women — they all come principally from the off-reserve communities,” Clark said.
“And until we start to recognize this, we will see more tragedy. Something that we can prevent.”
Government-mandated child poverty
When the NDP government came to power in mid-2017, it raised social assistance rates for the first time in 11 years, by $100 per month for a single person.
But a single parent considered employable, with two kids under six, still has to live on just under $28,000 — assuming they receive full provincial and federal child tax benefits — $537 a week. That’s $7,000 below the after tax Low-Income Measurement poverty line for a family of that size.
“Day to day, the amount of money that is supposed to be our social security network does not meet the needs for food, for shelter or a safe place to live,” said Dr. Charissa Patricelli, a family physician based in Surrey.
So what’s the solution for targeting the high poverty rate for families living on income assistance?
“Raise the rates,” said Kell Gerlings, an organizer with Raise the Rates advocacy group.
“That’s not a joke. I’ve worked with a few parents on welfare who say that raising the rates would help them immensely.”
Parents on income assistance rates that raised them above the poverty line wouldn’t have to choose between buying laundry detergent so their kids can go to school in clean clothes, or groceries so their kids don’t go hungry, she said.
Gerlings said income assistant rates should be based on the Market Basket Measure, Canada’s new official poverty measurement.
First Call uses the Low-Income Measure to define poverty. Any households with incomes less than half of the national median income are considered poor.
The Market Basket Measure is based on the cost of essential goods and services in 49 population centres and provinces. Anyone who doesn’t make enough to afford the basket is poor.
“Anyone at any point can end up on income assistance, and you wouldn’t want to have to find yourself in incredibly deep poverty, destitute,” Gerlings said.
Social Development and Poverty Reduction Minister Shane Simpson is aware some people are hit hardest by poverty. But if you want to know what his government plans to do about it, you need to wait until the province’s first poverty reduction strategy rolls out in February 2019.
“What we need to do is figure out not just how to clear the poverty line, but how did we get you there and how did we create an opportunity for you to do something different with education, with child care, with employment so that you end up with the life that you want to have,” he said.
“And we’re not just saying, ‘we got you over the line, so you’re not our statistic anymore.’”
This article was amended on Nov. 22, 2018 at 9:30 a.m. to correct information on the Low-Income Measure of poverty and clarify the source of data on poverty rates for visible minorities, Indigenous families and new immigrants.