December 6, 2012
Adopt-a-School: Income disparity at the root of Canada’s ills, and problem is growing worse #vansunkids
By Stephen Hume
She never wore the fashionable outfits her high school classmates affected and she was never at the local diner where we hung out after class.
“Chores,” she said. Then, one day, she just wasn’t there at all.
Maybe prom with all the flaunting of finery was just too daunting. For those without, school is not always the most welcoming place. It’s not that teachers don’t reach out and not that all teenagers form excluding cliques — but poverty carries its own corrosive cargo of feelings. It shouldn’t, but it does.
I met her again, several years later, on discount day at the local fair. I was now at university and had a full-time job, too. I was flush. She had two toddlers and not enough money.
Maybe that was just how she appeared because she was hot and tired and the kids were cranky, but I thought not. She still wore the beauty of youth, yet it was faded. She seemed harried, threadbare and careworn. She kept brushing nervously at a straggle of loose hair, clearly uncomfortable chatting. We exchanged the obligatory greeting, shared brief reminiscences and moved on.
I thought of her the other day when the report card on child poverty came down. I thought of how it’s not really about children, although they are the high profile victims, it’s really about good, decent people and families that don’t have the income capacity to provide their children with the simple chances and choices that we so easily laud as the crowning achievement of our society.
We talk a lot about choices and merit instead of privilege. Yet choices are of little concern to those who don’t have the wherewithal to exercise them and merit means even less when you’re behind the eight-ball before you even start.
Which is what got me thinking about the importance of The Vancouver Sun’s Adopt-a-School program. By the beginning of this month, Gerry Bellett reports, it had raised close to $800,000 in cash, matching grants and donations in kind for inner-city schools struggling to address the learning gaps caused by poverty.
This has been a great exercise in community spirit, Vancouver Sun readers helping to provide not just the basics necessary to an accessible education – breakfasts for hungry kids, bridging food security gaps for stressed families – but also enabling the small enrichments that make learning a joy instead of a barrier.
Enabling field trips, providing a bit more than the essential learning materials, finding the specialized equipment that can open doors for kids with learning problems, these things bring joy to the process and, as we all know, joy is something we anticipate and don’t simply endure.
And yet, while Adopt-a-School has been a terrific initiative and is one that I hope continues until it makes itself irrelevant, we should think about it not as an end but as a beginning. The needs the Adopt-a-School program successfully addresses occur within the greater context of British Columbia’s failure.
By that I mean our collective failure, all of us, not just government, which is the convenient scapegoat. We have all failed to deal with income inequality and its ugliest consequence, child poverty.
There’s been plenty written in the past few weeks about the report which finds B.C., one of the wealthiest of Canada’s provinces, second from the bottom when it comes to child poverty, and I don’t propose to go over it again here.
Pete McMartin has pointed out succinctly the consequences of income inequality — the rise of consumer debt and the erosion of the middle-class economy upon which all our comfortable assumptions about choices and equality are predicated. And, as Daphne Bramham observes in her column, blaming the poor for their poverty just doesn’t wash, either.
What strikes me, though, is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Other provinces and other countries have addressed the economic and social issues in which is embedded the poverty that makes the Adopt-a-School program necessary. They’ve been successful. We’ve failed.
Using internationally accepted standards, the Conference Board of Canada compared Canada’s performance in dealing with child poverty to 17 countries it ranked as economic peers. It found that over 20 years, Canada scored a consistent “C” grade. We are a mediocrity. Cause for a parent-teacher meeting if you bring too many of Cs home on your report card.
Yet, places like Denmark and Finland, small countries with fewer resources than Canada and populations only slightly larger than B.C.’s, both have achieved extraordinarily low rates of child poverty. Fewer than five per cent of children there live in poor households.
“The relationship between social spending and poverty rates has become more obvious over time,” the board said, “so it is not surprise that the leading countries boast strong traditions of wealth distribution.”
In 1989, parliament unanimously resolved to end child poverty by 2000. It’s now 2012 and the number of children living in poverty has decreased nationally from 13.7 per cent to 8.5 per cent. But in B.C. 14.3 per cent still live in poverty, still worse than the national average was 23 years ago.
In the intervening years, Social Credit, NDP and Liberal governments have all been in power. Political scapegoating may feel satisfying but answers nothing. Frankly, we don’t need any more politicians or their supporters blaming each other, or junior governments blaming senior governments, or any of the usual ideological dogma, partisan blame-casting and exculpatory rhetoric.
What we need is a mature public discussion about our mediocrity, our failure of imagination and our collective apathy and incompetence — because that’s the only explanation for why a big, rich economy like ours can’t achieve the simple standards achieved for Denmark, Finland and Norway.