Coming to grips with child poverty

Child poverty is a terrible thing. If you’re like me, the notion of children living in our midst, without the basic necessities of life, is morally abhorrent and politically unacceptable.

In the case of adults in poverty, one can always ask to what extent their actions have contributed to their state. Children are by definition dependent. There is no moral ambiguity about their poverty.

But this natural generosity of spirit leaves Canadians prey to unscrupulous politicians and professional advocates for the social welfare industry. Do images of child poverty set the country’s heart strings vibrating? Then we can expect this fact to be exploited through campaigns grossly misrepresenting the real state of child poverty in this country. The federal election campaign is proving no exception.

It all seems to start from the claim that twenty five per cent of children in this country live in poverty, a number that we hear repeated endlessly. Do you feel guilty at the occasional twinge of scepticism when bombarded with this notion from television and the electoral hustings? Well, you should.

These exaggerations generally come from intellectually dishonest use of Statistics Canada data and other measures of low income. StatsCan regularly produces figures on what it calls the Low Income Cut-Off, or LICO. Poverty industry advocates consistently – and wrongly – refer to this as “the poverty line”, implying that anyone below it is in poverty. This is incorrect.

Don’t take my word for it. Here is what StatsCan says: “although [LICO] are commonly referred to as official poverty lines, they have no officially recognized status nor does Statistics Canada promote their use as poverty lines.” Why? The LICO simply tells us how many Canadians spend more than twenty per cent of their income above the average for food, clothing and shelter. Some of these people live in poverty. Some do not.

Another favoured measure is the simple one adopted by the Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD). They say that a family – and hence its children – lives in poverty when their income is less than one-half the average income for a Canadian family of that size.

What’s wrong with these measures? They are not a measure of poverty, but chiefly of income inequality. They are relative measures. To understand what this means, consider the CCSD yardstick: if the incomes of all Canadians doubled, poverty would be unchanged. Even though those at the bottom would have twice as much to spend in absolute terms, their relative position would be the same. If Canadians below the line doubled their income, and those above tripled theirs, poverty would get worse, even though “low income” people would be massively and demonstrably better off.

People can disagree about whether the degree of income inequality we have in Canada is good or bad. What we should be able to agree on is that income inequality does not equal poverty. There are people who fall below the LICO or the CCSD lines whose incomes, while low, are more than adequate for their needs. There are others who are living in genuine poverty. Without credible measures of poverty, for kids or their parents, we risk diverting scarce public dollars to families and children who do not need them, at the expense of those who do.

Getting a fairer picture of the true size of the problem is important. Even more important is questioning our easy assumption that more money is the correct solution to the problems of genuinely poor children and their parents. A recent book by University of Chicago sociologist and self-proclaimed “hard-nosed liberal” Susan Mayer casts much doubt on this notion.

As writer Robert Samuelson observes, Mayer’s central question in What Money Can’t Buy is this: How important is money in enabling families to help their children escape poverty? Mayer’s answer, reluctantly but carefully arrived at is: not very. The most valuable things that parents pass on to their kids are attitudes and values, an approach to life that values hard work and success. Mayer found that parents who passed these values on had children who succeeded in that they stayed in school, got good grades and then jobs at good wages. These effects were independent of the parents’ incomes.

Money is important, and it is hard not to have enough of it. But if we really want to tackle the problems of child poverty we have to stop deluding ourselves about how bad the problem is. We also have to understand that poverty is cultural, a matter of values, at least as much as it is a question of income. Government cheques won’t solve that.

Brian Lee Crowley