November 9, 2012
Bed-bug bites, hunger: Learning is hard enough without the distractions of poverty
By Daphne Bramham, Vancouver Sun
Little kids shouldn’t come to school pocked with bed-bug bites. They shouldn’t turn up yawning after spending another sleepless night because their bed was the floor or was shared with siblings.
They shouldn’t think that a hotel is where you live if you can’t afford a home.
They shouldn’t come to school hungry, without shoes, socks, coats and underwear.
But they do in shockingly high numbers in Metro Vancouver and in many other parts of British Columbia as well.
Learning is hard enough under the best of circumstances.
But to be distracted by itching, lack of sleep and a growling tummy isn’t right.
It’s not fair to expect kids to concentrate even within the safety of the school when needles, condoms, pimps and drug dealers are on the streets that surround it.
It’s not fair to expect them to succeed when there’s nowhere quiet to do homework, no books at home.
In fact, it’s a disgrace that they even have to try.
Those external problems rob them of time in the classroom. To provide them with the best chance to learn, teachers and principals must be fundraisers, social workers and even Zen masters as they try to calm their troubled students’ minds enough that they can begin to concentrate on the task of learning.
British Columbia has posted the highest child poverty rate in Canada for eight consecutive years. It’s not because we have a surplus of bad parents, although British Columbia still has far too many children in government care.
Yes, there are some bad parents. But they’re in every neighbourhood — rich or poor.
The majority of parents scramble daily and often desperately to do all that they can to provide for their children. Sometimes it’s simply not enough.
Some parents are immigrants whose education, skills and past work experiences aren’t recognized and they’re forced to take survival employment.
Some have lost jobs and can’t find another.
Some can’t work.
Because of the Adopt-a-School program, we’ve heard too many stories of parents working two jobs who still can’t afford a decent place to live. We’ve heard about working parents who — after they’ve paid the bills for the essentials of housing, food and clothing — can’t afford bus tickets to get to work.
Reams of statistics not only back up the stories, they highlight the fact that the problems extend far beyond Vancouver’s notorious inner city and way beyond the scope of a classroom teacher, school or even school board to remedy.
Many of the jobs lost in the 2008-2009 recession were high-paid ones. According to Statistics Canada’s 2009 Perspectives on Labour and Income report, Canada “has one of the highest proportions of low-paid workers among similarly industrialized countries.”
Its data indicates that 18 per cent of employed Canadians earn less than $17,000 a year.
But that’s only part of the problem.
The 2006 census data indicates that 3,945 renters in Surrey pay at least half their income on housing. In June 2011, nearly 1,320 Surrey families were on the province’s waiting list for social housing.
In addition to those costs, the not-for-profit society Vibrant Surrey noted in its Poverty Reduction Plan released in July that the average household spends $803 a month on getting to and from work or school.
Making ends meet for increasing numbers of people means going to the food bank. Since 2008, food bank use in B.C. has risen 23.1 per cent.
A third of the 96,150 British Columbians who used a food bank this year were children, according to the Hunger Count 2012 report.
But the report released last week highlighted Oliver, in the heart of province’s wine region. After a motor vehicle plant closed, food bank use this year leaped 41 per cent.
Across Canada, more than a quarter of the users are either working or on employment insurance. Nearly four of every 10 food-bank users are 18 or younger.
All children have a right to learn and to be given the opportunity to succeed.
For now, achieving that means filling a diversity of needs — calamine lotion for bed-bug bites, head-lice kits, volunteers to help over-burdened teachers, transit tickets for students and parents, breakfast, lunch and snack programs and so much more.
None of these needs ought to exist.
But they do.
Individuals, non-profit organizations, corporations and even other kids need to pitch in to fill the most obvious and immediate needs.
Charity alone won’t end poverty, ease a critical housing shortage, build a strong economy or ensure livable wages for working people.
That takes concerted and coordinated government action.
But until that happens, children should not be punished for what politicians will or won’t do.