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Opinion: Still a long way to go in cutting child poverty

First Call has been tracking child and family poverty rates in B.C. for 22 years. It is profoundly disappointing that the 2018 Child Poverty Report Card, released Tuesday, still shows one in five B.C. children live in poverty.

First Call has been tracking child and family poverty rates in B.C. for 22 years. It is profoundly disappointing that the 2018 Child Poverty Report Card, released Tuesday, still shows one in five B.C. children live in poverty.

In 2016, the year this report covers, 172,550 children and youth were living in poor households, with many living in deep poverty.

Half of B.C.’s children in single-parent families were poor, more than four times the rate for their counterparts in couple families. And 82 per cent of single-parent families were female-led, with median annual incomes just 69 per cent of male lone-parent family incomes.

In 2016, the median annual income for a low-income single parent with one child was just under $18,000 — more than $11,000 below the poverty line. For a family of four, the gap between income and the poverty line was almost $13,000.

The data also tells us that most poor children live in a household where one or more parents are working. In 2016, just over 36,000 dependent children lived in households receiving social assistance.

Persistently high levels of child poverty reflect the continued growth of income inequality in our province and across Canada. They also reflect the growth of precarious work and stagnating wages as families face soaring costs for essential living expenses.

For some groups of children, the situation is worse. Indigenous children, new immigrant children and children in visible or racialized minority groups all have much higher poverty rates than the B.C. average.

Over the past few years, both federal and provincial governments have taken steps in the right direction. We can see that a more generous federal Canada Child Benefit, implemented for six months of 2016, helped increase the number of children kept out of poverty.

And, while it’s not captured in the report, the B.C. government’s new child-care investments will greatly assist low-income families with preschool-aged children, in many cases allowing parents to work.

This year, both the federal and provincial governments either tabled or legislated poverty-reduction plans. This is not insignificant, but it’s important to note the federal strategy had no new spending attached and included mostly existing initiatives.

Similarly, the B.C. government’s recent poverty-reduction legislation, with a target to reduce child poverty by 50 per cent within five years, is welcome news, but strategies that will actually lift children and their families out of poverty cannot come soon enough.

One of the most important things the provincial government can do is to redesign the B.C. Early Childhood Tax Benefit. B.C. is the only province that cuts off the provincial benefit for parents with children over the age of six. Every other province that offers this benefit extends it to families with children up to their 18th birthday.

By increasing the maximum annual benefit, indexing it and raising the age eligibility, the government could lift both working families and those receiving social assistance out of poverty.

The government has to do a better job of being the parent to youth in and from care. That means income and other supports beyond the age of 19 so youth who “age out” do not become destitute and homeless. The government could also ensure children are not taken into care because of household poverty.

Government must meaningfully collaborate with First Nations, Métis and Inuit governments and Indigenous organizations to develop plans to prevent, reduce and eradicate child and family poverty in Indigenous communities.

We also recommend that governments work together to offer universal coverage for prescription drugs, dental care, vision care and hearing aids. Too many families are making hard choices every month between health care and food.

Free public transit for minors and free or reduced-fee transit access for low-income families is crucial. People have to be able to get to work, school, health-care appointments; and it’s a safety issue when the cost deters children and youth from taking transit.

So, while we’re cautiously optimistic about the governments’ plans, we can’t lose track of what matters. The real test of efforts to reduce child poverty is whether they do just that. B.C.’s children, youth and their families need action.

This year’s Child Poverty Report Card shows we still have a long way to go to ensure all children and youth have what they need to thrive.

Adrienne Montani is provincial co-ordinator for the First Call B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.