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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 20, Number 4, January/February 2008

Child poverty: BC's shameful first-place finish

By Stacey Kemp

Did you know that according to the most recent numbers available from Statistics Canada (2005) that British Columbia, for the fourth year in a row, had the highest child poverty rate in at 20.9%, well above the national rate of 16.8%. In 2005, there were an estimated 174,000 BC children living in poverty. That was more than the populations of the cities of Victoria, Nanaimo, and Comox combined. Census figures also show that Aboriginal children living off reserves have a poverty rate that is almost twice as large as non-Aboriginal children. This number would be significantly higher if the 20,000 children living on reserves were included in the statistics. This is disgraceful and teachers need to take a stand and speak up for our students.

What is the definition of child poverty? According to Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-Off (LICO) a family is considered to be living in "straightened circumstances" (defined as spending a disproportionate amount of their total gross income on food, shelter, and clothing) if they spend 54.3% of their income on these three items. Most low-income families have gross incomes significantly below the poverty line with many of those working at minimum-wage jobs. In fact, the vast majority of poor children in BC live in families with some earned income and over half live in families where at least one person has a full-time job.

As teachers, we see the effects of poverty on children on a daily basis in our classrooms. How can we expect a child to come to school ready to learn when they have not had breakfast? Single men used to be the number one users of food banks but it is increasingly becoming families and children. Food banks may be necessary for emergency needs, but they were never intended to serve as part of a family’s regular sustenance.

The BC government has begun a number of programs such as ReadNow BC and StrongStart because, according to its own statistics, one in four children are starting school without the necessary skills to succeed. It is no coincidence that these numbers correspond to the poverty rates. Yet the government has made no comment on the link between poverty and children starting school without the necessary skills.

The stated purpose of these StrongStart centres is to "offer free drop-in programs for parents or caregivers and their children, helping preschool-age children develop pre-reading skills and get ready for Kindergarten." But this program does little to help children living in poverty because a requirement of StrongStart is for a parent to accompany the child to the centre each day they attend. Many parents are often working and can’t accompany their children.

Even if a parent is not working, there is a very good chance they would not be aware of the program. Unfortunately, many of these families are disconnected from the school community due to their own difficult circumstances. If a program such as this is going to reach children living in poverty, those children need to be identified and given assistance to attend.

The ReadNow BC website has a great deal of information regarding literacy and is designed to assist those with low literacy rates so they can navigate it. But once again, this information is not readily accessible to families living in poverty, as many do not have access to the Internet.

Children living in poverty start school with many disadvantages in addition to chronic hunger. According to the research, poor children are twice as likely as non-poor children to repeat a grade, be suspended from school, or drop out. They are 1.3 times as likely to have a developmental delay or learning disability and require special education services. Poor children are 9.9 times more likely to have experienced hunger. These difficulties translate into the classroom where teachers are more likely to assess poor children as poor students with more academic and behaviour problems. Poor children are also more likely to be: hyperactive, suffer from emotional disorders, exhibit disorderly conduct, get into trouble with the law, be in the care of child welfare services, and engage in risky behaviour.

As teachers we play a critical role in helping these children be successful in school and thus in life, and we need to examine our attitudes toward families and children living in poverty.

In 1989, members of all parties in the House of Commons unanimously agreed to seek to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. Unfortunately, since that time the BC child poverty rates have moved well above the national average and for the fourth year in a row are the highest in Canada.

So what can individual teachers (or local teacher associations and unions) do? You can contact your MP to let them know it is time for them to deliver on the promise they made in 1989. You can contact your MLA and tell the provincial government to end provincial clawbacks for families living on social assistance and increase minimum wage to $10/hour with future increases in line with the cost of living each year. The $6/hour training wage should be eliminated. BC needs to have a poverty reduction plan with a commitment to reduce the poverty rate in BC. We also need to advocate on all levels for universal access to high quality childcare.

There are a number of good organizations working to end child poverty in BC and many of them have campaigns aimed at making a difference. You can visit: www.makepovertyhistory.ca to get involved in a nationwide White Band Campaign to end poverty and visit www.campaign2000.ca or www.firstcallbc.org to read more about the impacts of poverty. The BCTF website also has information on poverty and suggestions for teachers at bctf.ca/SocialJustice.aspx?id=6308.

Together we can make a difference!

Stacey Kemp teaches at Wiltse Elementary School, Penticton, and is a member of BCTF Social Justice Antipoverty Action Group.

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