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Why has B.C. failed to address its child poverty problem?

Oh, the cushy existence the four children of Charlene Quinney must enjoy.

Ms. Quinney, a 37-year-old single mother, is currently jobless and at home with a five-month-old. She receives $1,150 a month in social assistance and another $1,254 from the federal child tax benefit. It adds up to just shy of $29,000 a year to feed, clothe and house herself and four children under the age of 12. One of the children's fathers was recently ordered to pay $400 a month in support. She gets $920 a year from another.

But that child support is taken off her social assistance cheques, meaning she is no further ahead, no better able to pay the $1,000 in rent for her two-bedroom apartment in Kamloops, or the food she puts on the table, or the student loans she's racked up. She can't afford a car. Consequently, she has no choice but to schlep herself and the kids around the city on the bus, which costs money too.

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In the past, Ms. Quinney has worked at fast-food restaurants and in offices as a receptionist while raising her children. She came to B.C. from Alberta two years ago to escape an abusive husband. She wants to work. She wants to finish the business administration diploma she's started. She doesn't want to exist on government assistance all her life; she knows where that leads. But now is when she could use every bit of help she can get.

"It's just really tough," said Ms. Quinney. "I've never struggled so much in my life as I am right now. I feel badly for my kids."

There is no greater blight on the government's record in B.C. than its failure to address child poverty. The province continually ranks No. 1 in the country in this category, with nearly 18 per cent of B.C. children living below the poverty line. In a province with so much wealth and opportunity, it's a shameful achievement. This government should be embarrassed – as should the Liberal governments that preceded it.

There are even grassroots members appalled at the government's record in this regard, ones who wanted to debate a resolution at the party's convention last weekend proposing the current practice of clawing back child support from social assistance payments be scrapped. Despite Premier Christy Clark's promise to allow delegates to engage in passionate debate about important public policy issues, there was never a chance this motion would be hashed out.

It would have ruined the feel-good atmosphere at the convention, the vibe that surrounded the one-year anniversary of Ms. Clark's epic comeback election win. It was always going to be a party first and a forum for serious discussion, well, um, never.

Those lucky Liberals.

While they popped champagne, Charlene Quinney was asking her landlord if she could get an extension on her rent. She was also considering her child's request to pawn a used Nintendo set to buy a pair of shoes. As for those fresh fruits and vegetables you hear the government insist parents get into their children? Right. Sure thing. Get right on it.

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B.C. isn't the only province that treats child support as income and deducts any amount a person on social assistance gets, dollar for dollar. Most provinces subscribe to this program. It doesn't make it right, though. It's still a disgraceful program that hurts children the most. And someone, somewhere, has to challenge this dogma in the courts.

In B.C., the government will allow a person on social assistance to keep some earned income over and above whatever they are getting from the province and yet won't extend the same principle to monies a person (usually a woman) receives from a non-custodial parent. In other words, if income is earned, there is an exemption (up to a certain amount) but not if it comes in the form of child support. How does that make any sense?

This invariably hurts women more than men because more women end up with primary care of a child when a relationship ends. And for that woman, it is not as easy to go out and earn a living while having primary responsibility for her kids.

Children have unalienable rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and there is an argument to be made that the government's claw-back policy is an abuse of those enshrined privileges. Kids whose parents aren't on social assistance get many benefits from child support that children whose parents are don't get. That isn't right.

The B.C. government says it would cost $17-million if it allowed parents on social assistance to keep child-support payments as well. As a start, what if the government allowed those parents to keep 50 per cent of those support disbursements? While it may not seem like a lot, it would mean the world to those receiving it.

To carry on as is would be wrong, mean-spirited and contrary to the values to which most of us subscribe.

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Editors' Note: A previous version of this column incorrectly said nearly 50 per cent of B.C. children are living below the poverty line. In fact, nearly 18 per cent of B.C. children are living below the poverty line, although nearly 50 per cent of children living with a single mother in B.C. live below the poverty line. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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