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Battling child poverty in Parksville Qualicum Beach

Local single parent Tom Burton says he barely gets by and says he is frustrated with certain government policies surrounding his income assistance.  - PHOTO SUBMITTED BY TOM BURTON
Local single parent Tom Burton says he barely gets by and says he is frustrated with certain government policies surrounding his income assistance.
— image credit: PHOTO SUBMITTED BY TOM BURTON

British Columbia has the highest rate of child poverty in the country and Tom Burton and his daughter experience that hardship every day.

"I barely get by," said Burton, a single parent who lives in Errington with his eight-year-old daughter.

Burton had his daughter later in life, he said, and he's now 64. He worked as a truck driver for many years and now he's riddled with arthritis, he said. He applied for disability assistance (called Persons with Disabilities or PWD) a few years ago. Once he turned 60 he also applied to begin collecting his Canada Pension (CPP) but this amount of $428 a month is subtracted off his total PWD assistance entitlement rate, making his total assistance the same as if he wasn't collecting CPP.

He said he believes he should get his full entitlement of PWD plus his CPP, and then he would have a few dollars left in case of emergency, or to fix his van which is in desperate need of repair, he said.

Like others on PWD, he could potentially earn up to $800 a month without affecting his assistance income, but that's not feasible, he said.

"I just don't understand the government — they allow you to make $800 a month on disability but if you can't work, you can't work."

First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Group announced in its 2013 report card that the child poverty rate was the worst in the country, and that it rose from 14.3 per cent in 2010 to 18.6 per cent in 2011. That is based on Statistics Canada's latest figures using low-income cutoffs calculated before tax. The national average was measured at 13.3 per cent in 2011 using the same before-tax calculations.

Parksville-Qualicum MLA Michelle Stilwell said although there is still work to be done in regards to child poverty in the province, First Call "is wrong in its unfounded assumption."

"B.C.'s child poverty rate has dropped by 41 per cent over the past 10 years to one of the lowest levels in three decades," Stilwell said in an e-mail.

First Call's provincial co-ordinator Adrienne Montani said the child poverty rate soared to an all-time high of 24.6 per cent in 2003 under the Liberal government and since then, she agreed, it has come down.

In its 2013 report card, First Call also announced that B.C. had the worst poverty rate for children living in single mother families, (with one in two of those parents experiencing poverty), B.C. had the most unequal distribution of income among rich and poor families with children, and the province also had the worst rate for children living in two parent families. First Call made a number of recommendations in its report card, including raising the minimum wage and raising welfare rates to the after-tax poverty line.

One of the biggest solutions to helping low- and middle-income families, Montani said, is to introduce universal access to high quality child care for children, at $10-per-day for full-time care, $7-per-day for part-time care, and free to families with incomes under $40,000.

In Quebec, a similar program was introduced in 1997 and a recent study shows the program is now paying for itself and then some. The study, led by Quebec economics professor Pierre Fortin, highlights the impacts of Quebec's Universal Low-Fee Childcare program (now $7-a-day). It concludes that in 2008 Quebec's domestic income (GDP) was higher by about $5 billion as a result of the program and that the program is now profitable. The authors also estimate that in 2008 the program induced nearly 70,000 more mothers into the workforce. The report stated that although the program has seen financial benefits, the rapid growth of the program in Quebec has given rise to various problems, including the quality of educational services to some children.

Local mother of two young children, Kristin Elliott, said she would support a high-quality, low-cost child care program in B.C.

Elliott took advantage of Parksville Career Centre's Self Employment Program last year that enabled her to access government funding to develop a business plan to start her own business making clothes and accessories. Now her business is getting busier and she'd like to have more time to work, enabling her to make more money, but daycare costs are too high, she said.

The cost of child care in most areas of Canada is higher than university tuition, according to Campaign 2000,  a non-partisan, Canadian coalition of over 120 national, provincial and community organizations. The coalition reported that daycare costs in B.C. are around $800 a month for a toddler to attend full time.

Elliott said if she had the extra money it could be going to the local economy.

"A lot of people have to go to cheap, giant department stores because we can't afford otherwise, but if we wanted to make our economy better we would spend our money closer to home and it would be better for the environment and better for everyone," she said. "I'm a small business that many people can't afford because I can't make my prices as low as Walmart."

Stilwell said implementing a heavily-subsidized plan like $10-a-day daycare, is "simply not feasible in our current economic climate. It would cost taxpayers approximately $1.5 billion annually," she said in an e-mail. "That being said, our government recognizes challenges faced by parents who struggle in raising a family and pursuing work or training opportunities and currently invests $290 million a year on child care."

She added that the recently introduced Early Years Strategy is meant to make child care more affordable and accessible for families, and that provincial investment on early years' services are increasing by $76 million in the first three years of the strategy.

A new Early Childhood Tax Benefit will also make child care more affordable, which will take effect in April 2015 and will provide $146 million annually to approximately 180,000 families with children under the age of six (up to $660 a year per child), she said.

Local parent Michelle Witten is on disability assistance and said buying nutritious food for her step daughter’s school lunches can often be a scramble, among other challenges.

The 2011 edition of Cost of Eating B.C., published by Dietitians of Canada: B.C. Region, reported the average monthly cost of a nutritious food basket for a family of four was $217 per week. This is almost one-half of the monthly income of a family on social assistance and more than one-third of the monthly income of a working poor family, the report stated. Witten, her partner and her step-daughter, make use of local services including the Manna Homeless Society’s van that provides donated food and other survival gear to those that are homeless and living in poverty Saturday mornings on Hirst Street in Parksville.

Deb Morran, president of the Mount Arrowsmith Teachers Association, said there are “huge pockets” of poverty in this school district and local teachers often use money out of their own pockets to provide basic necessities for their students.

Jeannie Diewold, a Kindergarten teacher at Errington Elementary School, said she saw a need so she recently started up a breakfast program at that school.

“As educators, we see daily the impact that the lack of a good breakfast has on learning. This translates to students’ inability to take advantage of educational opportunities because their basic need, hunger, has not been met,” she said in an e-mail. “Additionally, behaviour issues may arise from the same cause.”

The school has no budget for the program, she said, which currently only runs on Mondays and Fridays. Some local service groups have stepped up to help with initial start-up costs, but volunteers and donations are needed to continue and expand it.

Acting Director of Instruction with the local school district, Sheila Spendlove, said most schools have some form of food program, depending on the need identified at those schools. Some of those programs are put on by service groups. She said it would be wonderful to have those programs run daily.

“Until such time that money is invested, truly invested in that, we make due with what we have and we’re truly grateful to those who give their time and money to support those in need.”

She said the schools discreetly offer help to families who are struggling and have a cache of gently-used clothing that is given out when necessary, but each school is always in need of certain items, she said.

Stilwell said in addition to being MLA, she is also the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health and Healthy Living. Currently there is a program called the B.C. School Fruit and Vegetable Nutritional Program, that provides fresh fruits or vegetable snacks to schools every other week.

She said an expanded school nutrition program is something she would be interested in exploring, but she also said the government was re-elected last year to control spending and balance the budget, so they need to be mindful of the province’s finances.

Renate Sutherland at the Society of Organized Services in Parksville said families are a big part of the clientele who access services there. Last year, the SOS helped 882 households living in poverty with food cards and toys to give to their children at Christmas time. This represents about 1,200 adults and 1,000 children in this area.

The next segment in this series, published March 13, will delve into the services available to those living in poverty in the area, including services at the SOS, and where the gaps remain.

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