Poverty reduction best Christmas present from politicians

First published:
Dec. 3, 2003

There is a wonderful feeling that comes when you help a child at Christmas. And there are lots of opportunities. Donations to the Salvation Army Kettle, Christmas Wish, White Gift Sunday and the list goes on.

Nothing should take away from the spirit of giving at this time of year. Unfortunately, poverty doesn’t go away after Dec. 25.

Fourteen years ago, federal politicians unanimously voted to eliminate child poverty in Canada by the year 2000. Despite continuous economic growth more than one million children, that is one in six children, still live in poverty.

Campaign 2000, a mix of union organizations, churches, family service groups and concerned citizens seeking justice and equity for poor children, released the figures last week.

The report is not all bad news. In fact, the rate of child poverty dropped to 15.6 per cent of all children in Canada, down from 16.4 per cent only a year before. But this is still higher that 14.9 per cent low in 1989. That was the lowest level of child poverty in Canada in 30 years.

On the heels of the release, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit released a report called Caring for our Children, highlighting our situation locally. Its spirit and recommendations mirror the national report.

“Poverty, employment and access to affordable child care are just some of the factors that affect the healthy development of children,” said Dr. Alex Hukowich, chief medial officer of health.

The figures are heartbreaking.

Two parent families in the county make less than the provincial median of $61,024. While most make about $54,855, in places like Hastings it is as low as $43,100.

In 2001, Northumberland County had an unemployment rate of 6.5 per cent. That is half a percentage point above the provincial average. The north and eastern parts of the county have the highest levels.

The cost of feeding a family is estimated at $5,300 per year. For many middle-income families it represents about 13 per cent of total earnings. However, for those living on minimum wage, it is 40 per cent, nearly half of all the money earned.

Of the almost 11,500 families with children living in Northumberland, 12 per cent are headed by one parent, most often the mother.

The Challenge 2000 group wants comprehensive public policies and a healthy labour market to bring the end of child poverty. Federal and provincial programs would include income security to protect families with children regardless of the swings up and down in the economy. It also wants better jobs with living wages and decent working conditions. There are calls for early childhood education programs and care and, finally, affordable housing.

It is easy to ignore the situation in Northumberland. We don’t have starving children with stomachs swollen from hunger standing on the streets. Instead we hide our poverty or at least relegate it off into the corners of our community where we don’t have to see it every day.

Greg Dulmage, executive director of the Northumberland Children’s Aid Society, echoes the concerns of the health unit. He says housing; nutrition and schooling are key concerns.

Yes, there are programs for early education like Ontario Early Years. And there are also food banks and breakfast programs in schools. As well, people do have jobs, but often they are poor paying jobs or part-time without any benefits.

So if the poverty is not overwhelming, it makes it easier for officials to ignore.

“It is really going to take a co-ordinated effort by citizens up through to the federal government to make a different,’ Dulmage said. “It can be done.”

But we cannot rely on federal or provincial levels of governments to take the action needed. We have Liberal governments on Parliament Hill and Queen’s Park who are so fiscally conservative it makes Neo-Conservatives blush.

Instead, we must resolve these problems on our own at a local level. A strong grassroots movement would be able to pressure the upper tiers to do what is necessary.

As the new municipal councillors take their oath of office this week, let us hope they do not forget our families and our children.

It is far too easy to worry about infrastructure like roads and sewers and forget hungry children. Or for politicians to think about attracting big box stores or huge retailers rather than good paying jobs that will raise the income of providers in the family. And it is shameful how lost municipal leaders get in public relations and spinning our perception rather than creating affordable housing or dealing directly with complex issues.

And there are no simple answers. Just look at the debacle over a skateboard park in Cobourg. In an effort to provide youth with a place to enjoy themselves, councillors have turned it into an expensive, divisive exercise in futility. It demonstrates clearly the complex nature of resolving issues and not just throwing money at them.

Hukowich and Dulmage offer hope by providing a path for action. Let’s hope there are some bold new voices in Northumberland who are ready to take up the challenge.

We cannot afford another 14 years of waiting for the federal and provincial governments. If municipal leaders want to give children in Northumberland a great Christmas make it a resolution to dramatically reduce poverty in three years. A fancy ribbon is not necessary.

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