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A child covers their face in a doorway (Pixabay on Pexels)

A national report card on child and family poverty in Canada spanning 30 years says that one in five children are living in poverty, with rates exceptionally high for children of Indigenous and First Nation heritage.

Campaign 2000, a non-partisan network of organizations focused on ending childhood and family poverty, released the report card entitled “Child and Family Poverty 30 Years Later.” It provides an analysis of childhood and family poverty in the country using the most recent data available, creating a picture of the status of childhood poverty in 2019.

The report also examines the impact of the Canada Child Benefit (CCB), a revamped policy which replaced the Canada Child Tax Benefit in 2016, had its first full year of operation during 2019 and is aimed at preventing children from low-and middle-income families from falling into poverty.

Poverty decreasing slowly

The national child poverty rate has decreased from 22 per cent to 18.6 per cent over the past 30 years, which means it would take another 155 years for the government to eliminate child poverty at the same rate, according to a statement released with the report.

The report says more than 1.35 million, or one in five, children are living in poverty nationally, with those figures representing 18.6 per cent of children under 18 and notably, 19.6 per cent of preschoolers under the age of six.

Indigenous children both on- and off-reserve face poverty rates that are “shockingly” higher than all other groups in Canada, the report says. 

Among Indigenous peoples:

  • 53 per cent of status First Nation children on reserves live in poverty
  • 41 per cent of status First Nation children off-reserve live in poverty
  • 25 per cent of Inuit children live in poverty
  • 22 per cent of Metis children live in poverty
  • 32 per cent of non-status First Nation children live in poverty

Other factions in society are disproportionately affected by childhood poverty:

  • 35 per cent of former or current landed immigrant or permanent resident children live in poverty
  • 22 per cent of racialized children live in poverty

In contrast, only 12 per cent of non-Indigenous, non-immigrant, non-racialized children live in poverty.

The report explains that “inequality and poverty are rooted in systemic discrimination and stratified along lines of Indigenous identity, race, gender, immigration status (or lack of), ability, among other social, cultural and economic locations that result in specific populations being unable to access opportunities available to all other Canadians.”

Nunavut exhibited the highest child poverty rate in Canada at 31.2 per cent and Yukon the lowest at 11.9 per cent. Amongst the provinces, the highest child poverty rate was in Manitoba at 27.9 per cent and lowest was Quebec at 15.2 per cent.

Seven provinces – Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia – had poverty rates above the national rate.

How does the report measure poverty?

The report notes that in 2019, the government adopted the use of the Market Basket Measure (MBM), part of the Poverty Reduction Act, as the official poverty line.

The MBM establishes a poverty threshold by costing out goods and services that an individual or family would need to purchase to be considered to have a “modest” and “basic” standard of living.

The MBM includes costs for food, clothing, shelter, transportation and other essential items and baskets have been costed out for 50 different regions across the country to include local standard of living costs.

However, the report concludes that the use of MBM to measure poverty in Canada has “very serious limitations” as it is a “highly subjective” concept and the choices about what and how much of each item goes into a basket occurs “without defining what a modest standard of living is.”

The pattern of consumption the MBM is based on is also a decade old, the report states, which significantly underestimates the current poverty situation.

Because of the way the MBM is calculated, the measurement is also not applicable to the territories or First Nations reserves, which leaves out communities with “some of the highest prevalence and depths of poverty in the country,” the report concludes.

A new version of the MBM is expected in February after a review, which will update the baskets to 2018 consumption patterns. The report suggests using an alternate form of measurement for poverty, the Low Income Measure, which is used internationally and is more inclusive.

Was the Canada Child Benefit successful?

The report acknowledges that the CCB is “one of the most important instruments of child poverty reduction” and was responsible for preventing more than 684,000 children under 18 from living in poverty in 2017 – but it too had limitations.

The report found some of most vulnerable children and families in Canada were unable to access the benefit, including those with precarious immigration status, people facing gender-based violence, women in shelters fleeing violence and many First Nation communities.

The eligibility of an individual to receive the CCB is determined by the Income Tax Act, which the report argues “arbitrarily and unfairly excludes” certain elements of the population – such as families who have waiting for their refugee hearing – even though they are obligated to file and pay income taxes.

Vulnerable families are “caught in a system that requires them to contribute but excludes them from benefiting,” the report says.

What recommendations does the report make?

In order to decrease childhood poverty the report makes several recommendations, including:

  • An investment of $6 billion in the 2020 federal budget to reduce poverty by 50 per cent by 2025
  • Re-strategize the definition of childhood and family poverty in Canada by replacing the MBM measurement with the Low Income Measure to be more inclusive
  • Collaborate with First Nations, Inuit and Metis governments and Indigenous organizations to prevent, reduce and eradicate childhood and family poverty in those communities.
  • Increase the CCB and ensure that the most vulnerable elements of Canadian society can access it
  • Create and fund a national childcare program
  • Establish universal public pharmacare, including dental, vision and rehabilitation services
  • Immediately implement a $15-per-hour minimum wage within federally regulated industries.