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Trevor Hancock: Child poverty is outrageous and unhealthy

Canada is a wealthy country, and within Canada, B.C. is a wealthy province. And yet we have levels of child poverty that are shameful, that exert a terrible toll on the health of children, and that blunt our human and social development.

Canada is a wealthy country, and within Canada, B.C. is a wealthy province. And yet we have levels of child poverty that are shameful, that exert a terrible toll on the health of children, and that blunt our human and social development.

If it is true that the worth of a society is best judged by the way in which it treats its most vulnerable, then we fail miserably.

In its November 2016 B.C. Child Poverty Report Card, First Call, the B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, reported that one in five children — one in five! — live in poverty. Even worse, almost half of the children living in single-parent families — most of them single-mother families — are living in poverty. Most damning of all, child-poverty rates have barely budged in recent years, demonstrating a complete absence of political commitment to fix the problem.

In 1989, the House of Commons resolved to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000, which turned out to be a cruel hoax. B.C.’s child poverty rate climbed from 15.5 per cent in 1989 to 25.3 per cent in 2000. Between 2004 and 2007, it dropped to about 20 per cent and has been around there ever since. In essence, we have come to accept that this level of child poverty is just a normal part of life.

Yet this is a fixable problem; other advanced industrial nations have almost eliminated child poverty. A 2016 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development report, using 2013 data, notes: “In Finland and Iceland the child income poverty rate is only around five to six per cent, while in Denmark it is less than three per cent.” Using that measure of poverty, Canada’s rate is about 16 per cent. So clearly, as my late friend and colleague Clyde Hertzman used to remark: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

There is quite a price to be paid for keeping it that way. It is paid most of all by children living in poverty, and is a price they will pay for the rest of their lives. But the rest of society also pays a price in lost human potential, lost economic production and increased costs for health, social assistance and other services.

Working at the University of British Columbia, Hertzman was the founder of HELP — the Human Early Learning Partnership — which developed an international reputation for its work on what made children healthy. So much so that when the World Health Organization established a commission to examine the social roots of health and illness, Hertzman was asked to head one of eight “knowledge networks,” the one on early child development.

The network’s final report to the commission noted that early child development “strongly influences basic learning, school success, economic participation, social citizenry and health.” That is a broad swath of social benefit.

The report also noted that inequality in the availability of “socio-economic resources” (in other words, poverty) resulted in inequalities in early child development. On the other hand, “any additional gain in social and economic resources to a given family results in … gains in the developmental outcomes of the children in that family.”

In a nutshell, poverty harms early child development, which harms social and economic development over many decades. Thus the commission concluded: “Investment in early childhood is the most powerful investment a country can make, with returns over the life-course many times the amount of the original investment.”

Such investments would include “family-friendly social-protection policies that guarantee adequate income for all, maternity benefits [and] financial support for the ultra-poor, and allow parents and caregivers to effectively balance their time spent at home and work,” as well as policies that guarantee “universal access to a range of early child development services: parenting and caregiver support, quality child care, primary health care, nutrition, education and social protection.”

That is an agenda for healthy children and adults, healthy communities and a healthy society.

One would think that a wise government would take heed of this advice, especially as it came from a world expert right here in B.C., and that a premier and a government committed to a Family First approach would adopt such policies.

Sadly, that has not been the case, and as a result, children and our whole society continue to pay the price.


Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

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