Reducing Child Poverty: Lessons from Britain

In 1989, the Mulroney government introduced a bill to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the millennium. It was a laudable goal and one that everyone believed was achievable and, in a rare spirit of solidarity, the bill was passed unanimously in the House of Commons. This was a major initiative and it was the last time this issue was considered so thoroughly in Parliament, future governments having chosen to tackle Child Poverty piece meal with increased tax credits and a few investments in select programs.

In the 23 years since this bill was passed, the rate of Child Poverty in Canada has actually increased. There is overwhelming evidence that children who live in poverty, and especially for many years, are at greater risk of significant health problems and this evidence is summarized well by Dominique Fleury in a study for the federal government. Poor children are at higher risk of obesity due to poor nutrition, developmental delays and behavior disorders. The link between poverty and chronic health problems is strong in childhood, likely because of the dependence on others to care for them.

The Conference Board of Canada released a report on Child Poverty in Canada last year that summarized data from 2009. This report used the definition of Child Poverty that is the proportion of children under 17 and living in households where disposable income is less than half the median in a given country. According to this definition, 1 in 7 Canadian children lives in poverty. The Conference Board report also showed that Canada ranks 13th out of 17 peer countries in its efforts to assist poor children and their families.

In fairness, Canadian governments have tried to address issues of poverty since 1989 but not as assiduously as was necessary to have a significant impact. In contrast, Great Britain has succeeded in a similar period of time in reducing Child Poverty. The measures they have taken are reproducible in Canada and Canadians should urge their governments to implement them.

Two of the measures would be caught immediately in our federated model’s delegation of education as a provincial matter since Britain strengthened early learning and took measures to improve education generally. Britain also took aim at improving the financial situation of families by addressing the lack of affordable housing and increasing the minimum wage. They did also increase child benefits, which has been undertaken in various parts of Canada but is clearly not sufficient on its own to alter the plight of poor children. They also improved Health Services for children specifically, targeting poorer neighbourhoods and ensuring better access to primary care in those neighbourhoods.

While providing funding is not likely the only answer, the British experience suggests that some investment would help since the top four performing countries with respect to improving children’s living conditions all spend at least 3% of the Gross Domestic Product for direct public funding to families. Canada currently spends less that 1% of its GDP on families.

One positive piece of news is that, according to new statistics, the rate of Child Poverty in Ontario declined between 2008 to 2010 from 15.2% to 13.8 %. During the same period, the rate of Child Poverty in families led by single mothers decreased from 43.7% to 35.6%. Any decrease is good news but a 35.6% rate of poverty if you happen to be the child of a single mother is beyond worrying. Imagine how few opportunities these children have.  Is it any wonder their health care is compromised?

Because of the impact of poverty on children’s health, physicians must urge governments in Canada to review their current plans to eliminate child poverty. The Canadian Medical Association has recently undertaken to remind physicians that they can play a role in improving the social determinants of health. This is especially important for young Canadians. An investment in their families is an investment in their health and in the future of Canada’s welfare as a nation overall. Dr. Merrilee Fullerton describes the dependency ratio, that is the ratio of Canadians 65 and over to those of working age, reminding us that we depend on those of working age to support financially those who are not working. This will soon be the same generation growing up in poverty. Britain is working this out – so can Canada!

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