Canada has failed to create equality of opportunity: Broadbent

Ed Broadbent / The Globe and Mail

Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 24, 1989, I stood in the House of Commons and moved a motion to abolish the scourge of child poverty in Canada by the year 2000.

I was optimistic. The 11-year timetable was realistic, the goal reachable. And politicians seemed prepared to act. Prime minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal leader John Turner strongly supported the resolution and it passed unanimously.

Unfortunately, we have failed to meet the challenge. A goal without a plan turned out to be merely a hope.

It’s true that child poverty has declined since 1989, when measured by the low-income cut-off, which looks at the ability of low-income families to meet the bare necessities of life. But beyond subsistence levels of food, shelter and clothing, a major gap remains in the lives of these children.

The global standard for international comparisons is the low income measure. It calculates the proportion of children who live in families with less than half the median income. While many are beyond mere subsistence, families at this level have diminished possibilities. They cannot afford to buy their kids hockey equipment, enroll them in piano lessons or pay the cost of school trips.

By this global measure, we have utterly failed to create equality of opportunity. This child poverty rate is a national disgrace. It jumped from 15.8 per cent in 1989 to 19.2 per cent in 2012, according to a Statistics Canada custom tabulation for Campaign 2000.

The Harper Conservatives have continued to let down the country’s poor children and their parents. They have not increased targeted income supports for low-income families. Instead, they are expanding flat rate benefits, similar to the old family allowance program abolished as regressive by Mr. Mulroney’s government. These taxable payments are too low to have a real impact on poverty. They don’t come close to paying the costs of child care; they don’t create a single child-care space.

While failing the poor, the Conservatives are proposing new measures that disproportionately favour affluent families. Income-splitting will cost $2-billion a year and deliver no benefit at all to single parents or to two-parent families with both earners in the lowest tax bracket.

The maximum benefit of $2,000 will go mainly to very high-income traditional families with a single earner. The late Jim Flaherty appropriately rejected such unfairness while serving as minister of finance.

The growing gap between the poor and the middle-class, let alone the top 1 per cent, flies in the face of the democratic ideal that all children should have equal opportunities to develop their talents and capacities to the full.

Canadians agree that more must be done. A new poll of 3,000 Canadians, conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Canada on behalf of the Broadbent Institute, has found that two-thirds (64 per cent) want more action from the federal government.

There is no big secret about what works. More equality and lower poverty rates exist where there are good jobs, strong unions, generous child benefits, affordable housing programs and comprehensive child care services. Commitment, not new ideas, is what Canada needs.

A practical agenda is available. In terms of meeting the bare necessities of life, some progress has been made. Raising child tax benefits has helped. The National Child Benefit Supplement, launched by the federal government and the provinces in 1998, targeted more federal cash benefits to low-income families. However, it has not been increased for seven years.

The Caledon Institute and Campaign 2000 have long proposed that child tax benefits should be increased beyond mere subsistence to the point where the maximum amount meets the actual costs of raising children. The current maximum of $3,654 per child is not enough to push many families with low wages and insecure jobs above the poverty line. We also need much more low-income housing.

Affordable, high-quality child care and early learning programs are also needed. These allow parents, especially single parents, to work, and also expand opportunities for low-income children. Quebec has led the country with low-cost public daycare.

In the past 25 years, we have lifted a number of children out of destitution, but we have failed them and hundreds of thousands of other children when it comes to providing equal opportunity to the enriched life open to the majority of Canadians. Canada can and must do better – hope is not enough.