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Part 2: More B.C. children caught in the cracks

Part 2 of five-part series
Robyn Erwin, a single mother, works hard to make ends meet. "I'm really grateful for all the opportunities and programs there are for single parents," she says.

Robyn Erwin was 24, working at a local retail store and dreaming of studying art at Concordia University in Montreal when she found out she was pregnant.

“I told my boss I was a few weeks pregnant and before my shift the next morning I got a text saying I was fired,” Erwin said at the Young Parents Support Network in Haultain Village.

Fortunately, the accountant at her workplace changed her status to laid-off so she could collect employment insurance while she looked for another job.

“But no one would hire me. I was sick all the time, on my own and scared,” she said. She also needed a cheaper place to live, which is hard to find when you’re young, single and pregnant. Her son was born seven weeks premature and spent a month in hospital.

What followed Erwin’s perfect storm of job loss, medical crisis and unexpected single-parenthood was years of navigating social service policies that she, and many others, believe enforces poverty rather than elevates people out of it.

“I’m really grateful for all the opportunities and programs there are for single parents. They are a gift. But there are a few main things, when my son was little, that could have helped us actually get ahead,” she said.

Read the Hidden Poverty series

Because Erwin was on employment insurance for six months before her son’s birth, she was not eligible for a full maternity year off. So she went on income assistance and eventually found a minimum-wage job working in a kitchen part time. But whatever money she made was clawed back from her social assistance cheque. Then she had to pay for childcare, which, even at a subsidized rate, was about $300 a month.

“I was literally paying more to work,” Erwin said.

“If, at that time, I could earn even a few hundred dollars a month [without getting penalized], I would’ve stayed [at the job]. I liked working there.”

Now Erwin is in a similar situation. Her child support payments were clawed back from her social assistance. She has never made more than $14,000 a year.

“I do plan to get out of this,” Erwin said. She took part in the Bridges for Women employment program, will upgrade her schooling in the fall and hopes to study art education. Meanwhile, she manages to squirrel away a few dollars a month into an education fund for her son. “I want him to have a good future,” she said.

“I certainly see what I would call a lot of legislated poverty,” said Marika Albert, a researcher and program manager of poverty prevention at the Community Social Planning Council of Greater Victoria. She cited the child support clawbacks, low income-assistance rates and a lack of affordable housing in the region as examples.

“Or else we manage poverty as opposed to addressing it,” she said, noting things like a national $10-a-day child care program and increased minimum wage would drastically reduce poverty in the capital region. In Greater Victoria, full-time non-subsidized childcare costs from $800 to $1,700 a month.

“In one of our recent reports, one family said they get by in tough times by pretending they are playing a Survivor game with food, like seeing how long they can make a little bit of rice last. I can’t believe that’s happening here,” Albert said.

Widespread criticism about child-support clawbacks, which deduct support payments from income assistance for single parents, recently prompted the provincial government to announce a review of the policy. But, to the ire of those wanting action now, it will not be complete until after the next provincial budget in February.

In its annual B.C. child poverty report card released in late November, the First Call organization said about one in five children in the province were living in poverty. Based on the 2012 census, the number of children living in poverty increased to 169,240. In the previous year, the number cited was 153,000.

The report noted nearly half of B.C. children living below the poverty line were in single-parent households, 81 per cent of which are headed by women.

“Single-mom-led families are the worst off in Canada,” said Christine Kenwood, executive director of the Victoria Single Parent Resource Centre. The centre has about 1,800 member families and sees about 20 new clients each month. Eighty per cent of the parents are women, but the number of single fathers is increasing, Kenwood said.

“Most of our people are grappling with poverty and are socially isolated, often without family or friends nearby to help,” she said. The majority, about 80 per cent, earn less than $30,000 a year.

According to a study by the Greater Victoria Coalition to End Homelessness, about 260 families last year were in a housing crisis — either homeless or on the verge of becoming homeless. The majority of these were single-parent, female-led households.

When asked by the researchers what the main cause of their homelessness was, families said loss of income was No. 1, followed by lack of affordable housing, then relationship breakdown and barriers to assistance.

As child poverty numbers in B.C. have increased, so has local food bank use. According to this year’s Hunger Count report from Food Banks Canada, 97,369 people used a food bank in one month this year. Of those, 31 per cent were children. This represents a 24 per cent increase from 2008 to 2014.

“No government wants to see any child or family living in poverty,” said Stephanie Cadieux, minister of children and family development. While the NDP and citizens groups have been calling for a formal B.C. poverty reduction plan, she said the government doesn’t feel a legislated plan is required.

“Having an official plan does not guarantee success. That’s why we continue to provide targeted supports,” she said. These include a recent increase in rental supports to at-risk groups, a higher income allowance for those on disability assistance and, starting April 2015, a new B.C. Early Childhood Tax Benefit of up to $660 for eligible families.

Cadieux said the effort to alleviate poverty requires ministries to work together and that hers is one of the few to receive any budget increases over the past few years. “It is also important to realize, it isn’t always about more money, but ensuring that targeted supports are available for those British Columbians who truly need them,” she said.

Miranda Chapman, a single mother of two, said one of her greatest fears is that her children will be stuck with a mentality of living in poverty.

“I don’t know how to be any other way than poor. I never wanted that,” said the 30-year-old Victoria resident who lives on $1,400 a month disability assistance with two children.

She grew up in the Blanshard Courts housing project, where she babysat for sex workers and saw friends’ parents openly do drugs. At 13, she was in foster care, and was in youth housing at 16.

“I always knew I was meant for more, for a better life,” said Chapman. She finished high school, went to college and travelled, despite increasing anxiety and mental-health issues. When she left an abusive relationship three months pregnant, she worried she would end up sliding back into poverty.

“I just assumed I could get a job and then [maternity] leave and a place on my own,” she said. Like Erwin, no one would hire or rent to her. She ended up in emergency and then subsidized housing. Now she plans to study health sciences at Langara College in Vancouver next year and is interested in international development work.

“The exhaustion that comes with being poor, not knowing where money will come from every month, is overwhelming,” Chapman said. “But in a way, I want to hide, to not look or feel poor.”

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This is a corrected version of an earlier story.