From one election to another…

By Leslie Campbell, December 2014

Why do we spend more than twice as much on prisons as we spend on young children?

Good question. Many may not have thought child poverty relevant to Victoria’s recent civic elections, but mayoral candidate Changes the Clown did. He showed up dutifully at all-candidates meetings wearing his glorious outfit and making sad pronouncements about how we treat children in this province.

He certainly stayed on message: “One in five children and one in two children of single mothers live in poverty in Victoria” must now be firmly embedded in the minds of all candidates and attendees at the forums. 

After Mayor Lisa Helps wrestles that new bridge into place, perhaps she’ll tackle child poverty. As Changes suggested, there are things that cities can do to better the lives of young families. Affordable child care and a living wage policy top his list.

Cities can also put in place policies that stimulate job creation and the development of lower cost rental housing.

But the most potent way for any of us to make a serious dent in poverty is to convince provincial and federal governments to take more responsibility—because the growth of poverty, and its many costs to our cities, can be traced directly to their policies.

Here’s one example of how it plays out. Victoria Police Chief Frank Elsner just reported that an astounding 40 percent of the calls received by the Victoria Police Department involve mental health issues. 

This didn’t come about because we are all becoming less sane (though you are forgiven for believing that). It resulted, instead, from a deliberate dumping of responsibilities from one level of government to another, less resourced level. A recent report from the Columbia Institute explains it more precisely: “After a major push from institutionalization to a ‘community care’ model in the mid-1990s, funding for mental health in the province declined overall by 31 percent, or about $200 million, and funding for community-based psychiatric care actually decreased by $7 million. Institutions were closed, but provincial funding and resources didn’t follow discharged patients into the new system.” These de-institutionalized people were poor and needed civic resources of all sorts, not just police from time to time.

The aptly named report, Picking up the Tab: Federal and Provincial Downloading onto Local Governments, explains how a similar devolution happened with housing. The federal government once had a robust, well-funded housing program. It built homes for people. “[T]he costs of land acquisition, public housing construction, operating costs and rental subsidies were to be shared on a 75 percent federal/25 percent provincial basis.” 

That formula was amended in 1964, and by the mid-1980s, the feds had lost interest in subsidized housing and discontinued funding any new social housing projects. Then came the Province’s turn to lose interest and halt funding. Where homelessness was virtually unheard of in the 1980s, by the 2000s people were sleeping in doorways and parks. Cities started dealing with it by creating shelters, while non-profits went on fundraising drives.

The federal shirking of responsibility over those decades has contributed to the severe lack of affordable housing. Nearly a quarter of BC households that rent spend over half their gross income on rent and utilities—a crisis level according to Tony Roy, executive director of BC’s Non-Profit Housing Association. Costs offloaded to municipalities include the services needed to deal with the fall-out when people forking over so much of their income for rent fall on hard times. 

Little wonder that earlier this year, the mayors of Canada’s 22 largest cities ranked housing as their top priority, ahead of transportation and the infrastructure deficit (other areas of spending the feds have offloaded to cities).

The Province’s contribution to poverty is huge too: “Income assistance amounts for people with disabilities have been frozen since 2007, and lag well behind cost of living increases, especially for housing costs in urban BC.” Welfare rates? Similarly frozen. Minimum wage, stuck at $10.25/hour, means even with two parents working, families end up living well below the poverty line. Parents who can’t afford child care ($800/month or more) can’t work, so are unable to lift themselves out of poverty. Their children suffer poor nutrition, family stress, and limited opportunity.

In Victoria, the Social Planning Council has calculated the living wage to be $18.93 for a family of four. Both parents would need to work full-time at this rate to meet basic expenses. The Council notes that this high wage rate reflects, in part, a failure of public policy, especially around affordable childcare, housing, healthcare and transportation. “If there were adequate universal supports for low income families in these areas, their struggles to make ends meet would be significantly reduced.” If just one policy—the $10/day child care proposed by various organizations (and Changes the Clown)—were implemented, the living wage would fall to $15.75.

Twenty-five years ago, the House of Commons voted unanimously to eradicate child poverty by 2000, yet BC’s rate of child poverty has only increased. British Columbians are well aware and keen to change. The hot-off-the-press Child Poverty Report Card sums it up this way: “Local communities are busy forming task forces and action plans on poverty and homelessness. Charitable activities aimed at alleviating the worst effects of poverty are multiplying. But despite the best of intentions, individuals and local communities do not have the power or the resources to make change at the scale required for such a widespread problem. The policy changes and large social investments required to eradicate child poverty need to come from our provincial and federal governments. They could take steps to eradicate the poverty of thousands of children with the stroke of a pen. It’s a question of priorities.”

The new report from First Call, BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition finds that one in five children are still living in poverty in this province. Like so many other studies and reports, it outlines numerous and excellent policy changes for both upper levels of government, including a publicly-funded child care system, and significant investments in social housing and post-secondary education.

First Call dismisses the federal Conservative’s family income splitting measures as a gift to the wealthy: “Economists and tax experts alike have shown the Family Tax Cut will mostly benefit the highest income earners with low-income spouses, while some 87 percent of households are estimated to get zero benefit.”

When the federal government brags about its surpluses, remember that it’s been partly accomplished on the backs of cities and the poor; and that ultimately, funding from any level comes from taxpayers.

Sometime in the next year, we’ll be heading to the polls again, this time to choose federal representatives. So don’t let your civic engagement muscles get slack. There will be real choices to consider on a number of fronts, including child poverty. Though I wouldn’t be surprised if Changes the Clown brings his message to that race, we all have to make sure those elected reflect our priorities.  

Leslie Campbell wishes Focus readers a wonderful holiday season full of love, meaning, and happy, healthy children. Please do your gift-buying locally.