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How has the pledge to end poverty gone? Bloody terrible

By  Michael Fullan, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2014

Nov. 24 marked the 25th anniversary of a trail paved with good intentions but marred by broken promises.

In 1989 the House of Commons resolved unanimously to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Nine years after that goal came and went, a second resolution was passed in 2009, also unanimously, to develop an immediate plan to end poverty in Canada.

So how have we done? I’d have to agree with Michael Enright on a recent edition of CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning: “Bloody terrible.”

Today 967,000 Canadian children — one in seven — live in poverty. That’s up from 912,000 in 1989. Child poverty rates for aboriginal, immigrant and visible minority children are more than double the average, with 50 per cent currently living in poverty. It appears that as times get tougher, all levels of government become distracted by any number of (vote-winning) issues. There seems barely a semblance of shame that the commitment to eradicate poverty has failed, leaving behind a barrage of rationalizations for why this is so.

Most of the 912,000 kids who lived in poverty in 1989 have become poor adults, and chances are today’s 967,000 poor children will end up likewise. The complex issues that surround and cause poverty have made it a cyclical problem that must be battled head-on, with an absolute commitment to solve.

Six years ago the Ontario government announced a five-year strategy that targeted child poverty. The Poverty Reduction Act in 2009 was passed unanimously with great fanfare. The legislation’s goal was to reduce child poverty by 25 per cent by 2013. Needless to say, the goal was not met. Instead in 2013, the government announced a two-year increase in the Ontario Child Benefit annual maximum payment from $1,100 to $1,310.

After the government was re-elected with a resounding majority in June, Deb Matthews, the minister responsible for the poverty issues, introduced a second five-year poverty reduction strategy. This time, presumably to be on the safe side, specific target dates were not included. However, the strategy did include a new goal — to end homelessness — along with extending prescription drug and dental benefits to children in low-income families.

A just-released report, The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto, says that Toronto has the highest child poverty rate in the country, with almost 146,000 children under 18 — shockingly close to 30 per cent of all the city’s children — living in low-income families. These students are less likely to graduate from high school and are more likely to become ill.

New mayor John Tory has called the report a wakeup call, and pledged to work at reducing child poverty in Toronto. He has promised a strategy to match reduction targets with tighter deadlines, and called on the mobilization of citizens, unions, churches, politicians and other organizations. The sheer size of the problem means that the solution cannot possibly be financed by municipal taxpayers alone.

At Catholic Charities we believe that it is precisely during the most challenging times that we must be even more diligent about understanding the causes of poverty and fighting to eradicate it. As a Catholic agency, we have always been driven, during our 100 years’ existence, by the moral imperative to build a just society and safeguard human dignity. We are resolutely focused on helping our 26 member agencies to be as effective as possible in serving the poor and marginalized, whoever they are.

While we are doing all that we can, it is certainly not enough. Society, in the form of our various governments, must come to the plate.

The long-term consequences of children growing up in poverty have been extensively documented. They include poor health, lower education levels that lead to a lack of employable skills, and behavioural issues, often crime-related. In addition to the moral prerogative to work towards eradicating childhood poverty, there are inevitable financial implications if we do not take the necessary steps. A fairer taxation system would enable us to invest mindfully — for example, by increasing affordable housing, reforming the social assistance programs (to help the chronically unemployed find jobs) and introducing more child care programs.

Catholic agencies are witnessing first hand the profound damage inflicted by poverty on children and their families. We can only encourage all levels of government to remain committed to reducing poverty, despite the tough economic times.

(Fullan is the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Toronto.)

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