"The true measure of a nation's standing is how well it attends to its children - their health and safety, their material security, their education and socialization, and their sense of being loved, valued, and included in the families and societies into which they are born." UNICEF, 2007
This was an exceptionally significant moment in one of the most basic battlegrounds in the fight for human equality and human decency; the right of young people ( and, indeed, all people ) to be able to be who they are free from intimidation, marginalization and violence.
It is an issue of fundamental fairness.
As we continue to fight the systemic injustices of racism, homophobia and sexism in both society as a whole and as faced by young people, and as we continue to fight bullying in all forms in our streets, schools, playgrounds and workplaces, we must also reengage in the oft promised but never fulfilled fight against the mass and socially condoned bullying that is perpetrated on over 10% of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, our children and youth, by poverty.
This bullying begins the day a child is born into or has their family fall into poverty, it is entirely preventible through government action, and, therefore, the government itself is responsible for this continued victimization of children who have absolutely no control over their own circumstances. The consequences of poverty, its emotional and physical toll, are very real and easily demonstrable and they have both direct and indirect impacts that can be lifelong in their outcomes.
Most of us, at one point or another, have been sold the line that there exists equality of opportunity in Canada and that, as the ideologues of the present political hegemony and correctness would have it, anyone, through "hard work" can "make it". This notion underlies our image of ourselves as Canadians. A people who are fair, just and open. A people who allegedly want to make sure that everyone gets a "chance".
But our staggering levels of child poverty seem to put the lie to this mythology and this entirely fanciful view of our country.
The notion that a child, who cannot chose the fate of their birth, has the same chances and opportunities if born into a household trapped by the farce of a sub-poverty income of under $19,000 or less a year, as they would have if born into a household that makes $80,000, $120,000 or $300,000 a year, is an obvious and transparent falsehood. Especially given the fact that the redistributive and equalizing programs of the pre-Neo-Liberal era which both sought and succeeded in placing citizens of all walks of life on a more equal footing, have either been vastly cut back or gutted.
Only an idiot, to be be blunt, could really believe that equality of opportunity exists for all children today in Canada. And, once we admit that it does not exist, which it does not, then we admit that the basic notions of fairness that we feel underlie our society are just not there. And they are not.
It is one thing, while wrong, to feel that somehow an "adult" is entirely the master of their own fate. This has led to convenient, and totally erroneous, ideas that if they just "worked harder" they would "succeed" and pull themselves out of poverty. No one is ever told that, in reality, class mobility is a virtual myth, and that almost none of the folks that portray themselves as "self-made" are, in fact, self-made. Given the government handouts the business class took in 2008, or the private sector financed welfare programs that are there for right-wing political pundits, such as writers for the National Post or the Toronto Sun, both enterprises that would have failed 15 years ago on actual free market terms, you would think they would hang their heads in shame instead of, as they are, still setting the discourse.
None of the right wing media in Canada could exist without massive subsidies from their wealthy backers, and none of their writers or columnists would have the jobs they do under the "free market" conditions they claim to impose on everyone else.
But what about a child? Are we really to go back in time, to indulge in the idea that a child is responsible, due to God, fate, caste, genetics, or whatever you seek to place there, for the poverty they are born into? Do we really think that there is a genetic, racial, or gender related reason for poverty?
If we believe that all are born as equals, and if we accept that poverty, as we will soon show, greatly inhibits equality of opportunity, health and education, how can one truly believe we live in a fair and just society, a society where everyone has a "chance" and where everyone can "make it", when, as a society, over the last 20 years we have done nothing to change the situation. Despite round-after-round of tax cuts that represented wealth transfers away from the poor, despite incredible economic growth prior to 2008, and despite the vast enlargement of the riches of the very wealthy, basically nothing was done, by provincial or federal politicians, to change this reality at all.
And this includes "progressive" politicians. The Liberal 1995 budget was a direct turn away from the "Just Society" notions of their past and stands as the declaration of war by our political class on the poor of Canada. Provincial NDP governments, even when in power for a sustained period of time, have also done nothing of any relevance to change these facts.
In fact, Manitoba remains the "Child Poverty Capital of Canada". An amazing title for a province allegedly led by "leftists" since 1999. Relative to the rest of Canada they have done nothing, at all, to reduce child poverty.
Political "expediency", "realism" and "tactics" have come ahead of poor children. And they continue to.
Child poverty, which could be largely eradicated for a fraction of what we have squandered on "tax relief" is simply not a priority. Our politicians, of all stripes, would rather appear to be fiscally "responsible" than to stand up for these children, the hundreds of thousands of whom we are turning our backs on.
What does this poverty mean, exactly?
"Child poverty in Canada is a significant public health concern. Because child development during the early years lays the foundation for later health and development, children must be given the best possible start in life. Family income is a key determinant of healthy child development. Children in families with greater material resources enjoy more secure living conditions and greater access to a range of opportunities that are often unavailable to children from low-income families. On average, children living in low-income families or neighbourhoods have poorer health outcomes. Furthermore, poverty affects children’s health not only when they are young, but also later in their lives as adults."
What are the consequences of child and youth poverty?
The last available information shows that, for example, only 58.5% of youth from households making less than $25,000 a year enrolled in a post secondary institution, compared to 81% from households with an income above $100,000. This should say something to all of the "pundits" who try to attack what the students are fighting for in Quebec. Anyone who thinks that the higher tuition fees of the past 15 years do not contribute to this, is, frankly, delusional.
We also find that "The mortality rate for people under age 18 in Quebec is three times as high for boys and twice as high for girls who grow up poor than for those who are rich, the report said.
Compared with the wealthy, poor children have 13,500 more visits to a hospital every year for respiratory illnesses, traumas and poisoning, the report says. They also suffer higher rates of mental health problems - 127 per cent higher for boys and 37 per cent higher for girls."
Then we find that " In 1996, Canada’s infant mortality rate in the lowest-income urban neighbourhoods was 66% higher (6.5 deaths per 1000 live births) than in the highest-income urban neighbourhoods (3.9 deaths per 1000 live births). Although low in absolute terms, Canada’s average infant mortality rate of 5.4 deaths per 1000 live births reported between 2002 and 2003 conceals the sizeable differences between low- and high-income neighbourhoods. Furthermore, Canada’s rate is greater than that of 20 other OECD countries for which data are available, including the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain and Greece."
This same report goes on to show that "Children living in low-income families or neighbourhoods have worse health outcomes on average than other children on a number of key indicators, including infant mortality, low birth weight, asthma, overweight and obesity, injuries, mental health problems and lack of readiness to learn. Some groups, such as Aboriginal populations, suffer disproportionately from poverty and its consequences, such as excess infant mortality, higher risk of injuries, and higher rates of disabilities, respiratory conditions and obesity"
And this is but the tip of the iceberg. Never mind crime, suffering, the stress of daily poverty, the effects of malnourishment, the reality of knowing that your day-to-day well-being is uncertain, and children do know this, and that at anytime negative things can happen to yourself or those you love and depend on.
It is an awful reality that occurs for over a million children in Canada everyday. And there is no possible moral or social justification for it. It exists because a lot of very well off people want to pay fewer taxes and to entertain people at the sides of the pools or cottages that the tax breaks they got on the backs of these kids built. And it exists because all of our political parties essentially support this aim.
We all know that this could be ended. Our society is more than wealthy enough, and were it not for the pandering of all parties to the wealthy and the powerful, and were it not for the fixation of these parties on the false gods of tax cuts and austerity, we could have made, and could still make, tremendous strides towards changing this appalling reality.
It is time to press the point. To make this a priority in our country again, and to end the unnecessary suffering. Not only because this will aid social cohesion, reduce crime and allow us to claim to be a "Just Society", but also because it is the morally right thing to do and because what we allow now is morally indefensible.