Measuring poverty is an inexact science, but no matter how the statistics are analyzed they look bad for British Columbia, which has the highest child poverty rate in Canada, according to a coalition of health, justice and social service groups.
The organization, First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition, released a report Tuesday based on Statistics Canada data that shows more than 18 per cent of children in the province live below the low-income cutoff, which is synonymous with the poverty line.
"This is higher than any other province and more than 5 percentage points higher than the Canadian average," the coalition said. The report also found that nearly one-third of the children living in poverty in B.C. belong to families where at least one parent is working full time.
Stephanie Cadieux, B.C.'s Minister of Children and Family Development, said the government is trying to deal with the problem by "growing the economy, creating jobs and providing supports where they are most needed."
But Adrienne Montani, provincial co-ordinator of First Call, said that approach is failing because the number of children living in poverty in B.C. climbed by 4 per cent from 2010 to 2011, the most recent period for which Statistics Canada data is available.
"There is a lack of focus [on this problem] from government," she said. "Their policy of leaving it to market forces just isn't working."
Ms. Cadieux disagreed. "Our focus on jobs is working," she said in an e-mail. "B.C.'s singledigit unemployment rates across every region in the province are a positive sign that we are on track for continued economic growth. That growth allows government to continue providing targeted supports to low-income families."
She said the B.C. government has invested $3.6-billion over the last decade to provide affordable housing, and more than 98,000 households currently benefit from that program.
Ms. Cadieux said the government also plans to add 2,000 child-care spaces to the already existing 100,000 spaces.
Despite such efforts, however, the data shows that 153,000 children were living in poverty in B.C. in 2011, up from 119,000 the year before. "B.C. stands out as having done the least among all provinces to bring down child and family poverty," Ms. Montani said. "We're not doing enough. If families come first then public policy should reflect that."
Among other things, Ms. Montani said, the province should raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour, welfare rates should be brought up to the after-tax poverty line, and an independent commission on tax reform should be struck to recommend ways to reduce income inequality.
Ted Bruce, executive director of population health for the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, said government policies that reduce poverty rates make economic sense.
"What the statistics show is that children who live in low-income situations proportionately are more vulnerable. Their opportunities for developing and learning are not as good as others and that's what can contribute to, in the longer term, the development of various problems, including eventually chronic diseases," he said. "We know that people in lower socioeconomic communities generally have higher hospitalization rates than others … so there's definitely a cost to society."
A Statistics Canada report on low-income children notes that "defining and measuring poverty among children is not straightforward, not only because for the most part children do not earn any income, but also because Canada, like many developed nations, has no definition of poverty." While Statscan doesn't officially measure poverty, it does look at income levels. If more than 70 per cent of a person's income goes to the essentials of food, clothing and shelter, that individual is considered to be living below the low-income cutoff line.