Advocates call on the province to step up child poverty funding

Laurie Monsebraaten

Nov 24 2008

Ontario will have to spend at least $6 billion over the next five years to make a dent in the province’s “stubbornly high” child poverty rate of almost 12 per cent, advocates say.

That’s comparable to what Quebec has spent since 2003 to achieve its enviable record of cutting child poverty in half in the past decade, said Jacquie Maund, Ontario co-ordinator of Campaign 2000, a national coalition of more than 120 organizations committed to ending child poverty in Canada.

Friday was the 19th anniversary of Ottawa’s pledge to end child poverty by 2000. But Ontario’s child poverty rate of 11.8 per cent in 2006 has barely budged since that historic – and largely empty – federal promise, Maund told reporters at Queen’s Park on Friday. It means 324,000 Ontario children – almost one in nine – are living in poverty. Nationally, 760,000 children are poor, a rate of 11.3 per cent.

“With the economy falling into recession, now, more than ever is the time for government to step up to the plate and invest the dollars that reflect a true commitment,” she said.

The money is needed to invest in good jobs; higher social assistance rates; low-cost child care; affordable housing; and better access to post-secondary education and training, says the coalition’s 2008 report card.

During last fall’s provincial election, Premier Dalton McGuinty promised to draft a multi-year poverty reduction strategy by year’s end. It is expected within weeks.

Children’s Minister Deb Mathews, who is leading the effort, said Ontario will spend $600 million next year on its new child benefit, an amount that will rise to about $1 billion a year by 2011. The province also wants to ensure the billions of dollars it already spends on social services will be used more effectively to better help families and individuals escape poverty. “This is a comprehensive strategy focused on breaking the cycle of poverty and anybody who judges it on only the bottom line is missing the point,” she said in an interview.

Toronto single mother Stacey Bowen, 48, who is struggling to raise two teenaged daughters on welfare, urged Queen’s Park to do more for families like hers.

“People like me are the silent sufferers,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “I would love to one day be able to send my one daughter to acting classes and have my other daughter take singing lessons. But I can’t … They deserve to have their natural gifts they were born with discovered. As their mother, it hurts.”

Dr. Michael Rachlis, of the Ontario Physicians Poverty Working Group, said beyond the moral imperative to address child poverty, there are the health costs. Poor children cost the system more because they suffer more illnesses as adults. Even poor children who become wealthy as adults are still at greater risk for cancer, diabetes and heart disease than those who grow up in middle class homes, he told reporters.

On Parliament Hill, advocates called on the federal government to draft an anti-poverty strategy like those in force in Quebec and Newfoundland and in the works in Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Campaign 2000 uses StatsCan’s “low income cut-off” to define poverty. The low income cut-off for a family of four in the GTA in 2006 (the latest available data) was $33,216 after taxes.

Credit: Toronto Star

Dawnmarie Harriott