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Canadians are just beginning to prepare themselves for the season of Christmas. The important feast has a deeper meaning than an overindulgence of food and frenzied consumerism. For Christians it is the moment when God took human form and renewed the hope of salvation for the world.
Believers recount this story of an infant deity born into poverty so bleak that his first hours were spent in a barn “because there was no room for them in the inn.” The Christ child was placed on straw in a manger, since there was no bed. His parents wrapped their baby in rags, as “swaddling clothes” were all that was available.
Who would have imagined that God would have entered human history in such a way! And who would imagine that Canadian children, more than two millennia later, would continue to live in grinding poverty?
One month before Christmas 2009, Canadians were informed that almost one in every ten kids still lives in poverty in this, one of the richest countries on the face of the earth. On November 24th 1989 the Parliament of Canada unanimously voted to end child poverty by the year 2000. Today, after twenty years, this promise remains broken.
According to Campaign 2000, the coalition of over 100 groups that includes the major churches, social agencies, labour unions and Citizens for Public Justice, this year’s “Report Card” on child poverty shows some disturbing realities. The available numbers may actually disguise the depth of our failure. These latest statistics on child poverty are from 2007, well before the global financial meltdown. Still, in that year 637,000 children lived in poverty (not counting poverty among Aboriginal children which is estimated to have reached one in every four kids.)
Worse yet, when compared to other countries, Canada’s record is dismal: Inequality between the rich and poor in Canada has grown more than in any other wealthy OECD country during the last decade, with the exception of Germany. And Canadian children are not living in poverty because their parents won’t work: Campaign 2000 reports that many low-income families have some employment income, yet are not finding jobs with sufficient pay, hours and benefits to get above the poverty line. In the 2000s, 4 out of 10 (40%) low-income children had at least one parent who worked full time throughout the year but could not rise out of poverty, up from the less than 1 out of every 3 children during the 1990s.
Child poverty at such drastic levels is not only a national embarrassment to Canadians, but also a signal that our economy is out of whack with the best of our human aspirations. If we really wanted to end poverty in Canada, could it be done?
History tells us that we could severely reduce, and eventually eliminate poverty, if we and our governments determined to do so. Remember that a decade ago the populace decided to address poverty among elderly Canadians, and governments put programs in place such as the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement. And it worked to substantially lower those poverty rates. Are Canada’s children less worthy of poverty-free futures?
So what would it take to eliminate child poverty?
Campaign 2000 advocates for measures like an enhanced child benefit for low-income families to a maximum of $5,400 ($2009) per child, restored and expanded eligibility for Employment Insurance, increased federal work tax credits of $2,400 per year, a federal minimum wage of $11 per hour, a national housing plan including substantial federal funding for social housing, a system of high-quality early childhood education and child care services that is affordable and available to all children (0-12 years), special strategies for Aboriginal peoples and newcomer groups, as well as other proactive strategies, including employment equity in the public and private sectors, to level the employment playing field for racialized communities and other historically disadvantaged groups.
The federal government must set appropriate poverty reduction targets, timetables and indicators, and reporting on progress must become a Parliamentary routine. On November 24th 2009MPs unanimously passed a motion that the “Government of Canada … develop an immediate plan to eliminate poverty in Canada for all.”
This is a major step towards accomplishing the first goal of Dignity for All: The Campaign for a Poverty-free Canada, a comprehensive and integrated federal poverty elimination plan with measures to address critical issues such as income security, employment insurance, early childhood development, education and training, and social supports.
We can all do our part to ensure that the next 20 years are not wasted. By joining the Dignity for All campaign you can show your support for implementation of a federal poverty elimination plan, legislation to enforce best practices and the fiscal capacity to invest in our children.
Don’t let the Christmas season pass without giving this gift of your time and energy to the birth of new hope for future generations.