In January of this year, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ released its 2019 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia and there is little good news in the report for Nova Scotia or the Annapolis Valley specifically.
The report indicates that 24.2 percent of children in Nova Scotia were living in poverty in 2017 – the highest rate of child poverty in Atlantic Canada and the third-highest rate in Canada as a whole.
In the Annapolis Valley, the child poverty rate was estimated to be even higher - 34 percent! The only region in the province that had a higher rate was Cape Breton at 34.9 percent.
Even in my hometown of Wolfville – with its well-educated and professional population and a vibrant local economy – the child poverty rate is greater than the national and provincial averages.
An equally disconcerting fact is how high the child poverty rate is among Indigenous children; the study says that 75 percent of children in the Sipekne’katik First Nations were living below the poverty line. Seventy-five percent!
The report also notes that 53.1 percent of children in lone-parent families in Nova Scotia were living below the poverty line.
Despite Parliament’s vow to eliminate poverty by the year 2000, the most recent report card demonstrates our abject failure to do so in this province; the proportion of children living below the poverty in Nova Scotia has decreased by a measly 0.82% since 1989, the year this promise was made.
And while the McNeil government inherited the province’s high poverty rate, it has the ignominious record of presiding over the only province that saw its child poverty rate increase between 2015 and 2017.
As a Nova Scotian, and as a social democrat, I am both appalled and saddened by the lack of political will to address poverty at the provincial level.
While Stephen McNeil is quick to congratulate his government for balancing the provincial budget, thousands of children go hungry in this province.
To ignore the plight of children living in poverty is not only heartless, it is bad governance. Poverty is a social evil for moral reasons, but it also contributes to and exacerbates other social ills. Children and young people living in poverty are at greater risk of academic failure, conduct disorders, physical and mental health problems, homelessness, as well as delinquent and criminal behaviour.
By failing to address underlying social problems like poverty, governments must confront a diverse range of other resulting complications that respectively require an array of government agencies, policies, and programs that are costly, reactive, and which only addresses the symptoms of deeper social problems.
Instead of reacting to the consequences of poverty through under-funded government agencies and porous social welfare or criminal justice systems, the provincial government must shift its resources towards more proactive, effective, and cost-effective ways in addressing poverty.
The causes of poverty are complex and multifaceted; as such, resulting policies must be equally comprehensive, while also reflective of the unique situation of different populations and communities that most intensely suffer from this social affliction.
A comprehensive poverty-reduction program for Nova Scotia would include such measures as better early learning and child-care systems, increasing graduation rates and access to post-secondary education, providing more affordable housing, ensuring a livable minimum wage, enhancing income supports, indexing the provincial child tax benefits to inflation, expanding universal health care to cover dental care, mental health care and prescription drugs, addressing racism and discrimination that concentrates poverty in indigenous and African-Nova Scotia communities, committing to reconciliation with and supporting self-determination among First Nations, and empowering women and ensuring equal pay to overcome the feminization of poverty.
We have already seen other provinces undertake much-needed initiatives to address poverty. The NDP government in British Columbia has pledged to increase the minimum wage to more than $15 an hour by 2021.
The Canada Child Benefit introduced by the federal Liberal government has lifted around 300,000 children out of poverty, according to Statistics Canada. (As columnist Jim Vibert points out in his scathing indictment of the McNeil government’s record on social welfare, “Nova Scotia is the only province where the three-year-old federal Canada Child Benefit didn’t cut into the child and family poverty rates.”)
A universal basic income – in which all Canadians are guaranteed a livable income – have been touted as an effective way to reduce poverty. The strategy has been endorsed by both the Canadian Medical Association, in part because poverty is a major determinant of ill health and unequal access to health care.
No doubt, we all have a responsibility to help those who are in need and we can always do more in the Valley to address poverty and its repercussions, such as food insecurity, poor health, and inadequate housing.
Raising awareness of the problem is a start. Giving to local charities, including food banks, also helps. Volunteering with local organizations that serve disadvantaged children, such as Big Brothers / Big Sisters, has shown to offset the deleterious effects that poverty has on children.
However, as positive as these local charitable measures may be in checking some of the symptoms of poverty, it is only through the commitment, policies, and programs of government can the various causes of poverty be eradicated.
The extent to which a government demonstrates the political will to truly eradicate poverty is a moral decision. The McNeil government has refused to effectively deal with the problem, in part because of its neo-conservative orientation that stresses austerity, balanced budgets, and pro-corporate policies (including maintaining one of the lowest minimum wages in the country).
Hopefully, the latest statistics will finally spur this government and future governments to truly tackle this problem through meaningful actions.