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Opinion

When a heart-wrenching photo made it better for children

By Jim Creskey      

In Canada, 19 per cent of children are living in poverty and that number rises to nearly 50 per cent in single-parent families.

Alex Paterson, right, policy and research manager with the think tank Upstream, offers visitors to Parliament Hill an apple and a message about child poverty in Canada on Oct. 17, the UN’s International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. Citizens for Public Justice photograph by Jim McIntyre
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OTTAWA—It’s about the children.

Nothing brought this home more than the 2015 photo of the body of a three-year-old Syrian refugee boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a beach in Turkey. The heartbreaking photo, appearing during the last federal election, stirred up the empathy of many Canadians who were starting to notice that the Harper government was suffering from a deficit of compassion when it came to running Canada’s refugee programs. The photo also helped to inspire countless Canadians to personally sponsor refugee families through family, community, and church groups.

It wasn’t the first time that the thought of the suffering of an innocent child played a role in a major policy decision.

Even if we have trouble finding compassion for other adults, most of us have no problem finding it for children.

That brings us to some unnerving statistics that emerged from a report on poverty trends in Canada released Oct. 17, on a breezy fall day in front of the Peace Tower. Yes, we all know that Oct. 17 was the first day of legalized cannabis in Canada. It was also the date set aside by the United Nations for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

The Canadian study was put together by the group Citizens for Public Justice, a non-governmental organization supported by many of Canada’s churches. It drew on recent information collected from the federal government, Statistics Canada, census data, and other sources.

It reported that 19 per cent of Canada’s children were living in poverty and that number increased to nearly 50 per cent in single-parent families. The numbers were higher for Indigenous and recent refugee families.

There are more than one million children under the age of 14 in “lone-parent” families in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. A lone-parent family is one that is not assisted by a grandparent or other adult. Most of these are headed by a female parent, although more than 200,000 children live with a lone male parent.

The number of Canadian children living in poverty is well over one million. The number in lone-parent families is about one half million.

A Statistics Canada metric called the “Market Basket Measure” was used to determine the level at which a household lacks the income to buy a specific basket of essential goods and services, including nutritious food, clothing, shelter, transportation, personal care items, and household supplies. Poverty means not being able to fill that basket of basic needs. The cost of the basket rises in expensive cities like Vancouver and Toronto.

This summer the Trudeau government established a poverty metric for Canada and a poverty reduction strategy called Opportunity for All. It was both praised and mildly criticized for not trying harder to make the plan an all-party commitment, which would make it harder, though not impossible, for a subsequent government of a different political stripe to torpedo it. The Liberals were also—and more rightly—criticized for not offering more aggressive funding for poverty reduction. The strategy set targets to reduce poverty in Canada by 20 per cent by 2020 and 50 per cent by 2030, relative to 2015 levels.

The Liberals are still earning fair praise for bringing in a new baby bonus that is actually making a difference for poor families. The Canada Child Benefit program of $6,496 annually for children under six and $5,481 for children from the ages of six to 17 has gone a long way to reduce child poverty. This summer the government pegged the program to inflation but admitted that not all low-income families were enjoying the benefits.

Because the non-taxable benefit is based on income, it requires that a tax return be filed. A large number of Indigenous families who were not filing tax returns as well as new refugee and immigrant families, were still missing out on the payment.

Voltaire, who was far from perfect himself, was smart enough to coin the phrase that, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Canada’s policy in respect to low-income and refugee children is just that: not perfect, but good. Although sometimes it takes a powerful photo of a child in need to remind us that the good needs to be made a whole lot better. Even if that calls for a sacrifice.

Jim Creskey is a publisher of The Hill Times.

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