With more than a million Canadian kids living in poverty, giving them food and toys at Christmas is not enough

Oh God! That bread should be so dear,
And flesh and blood so cheap!
–Thomas Hood, “The Song of the Shirt.

In my recent post on world happiness, I cited a couple of polls that ranked Canada well below other countries in assessing their population’s level of happiness. We managed to come seventh in the 2016 United Nations World Happiness Report, but lagged much further behind in Gallup’s annual Global Emotions Atlas, which ranked Canada below Costa Rica and eight other Latin American countries as well as Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and even the United Arab Emirates.

I attributed Canada’s poor showing in the Gallup Poll to our deficient public health care system, our dismal record on the environment, our mistreatment of indigenous peoples, but most of all to our disgracefully high rate of child poverty and low rate of child care.

The latest report from UNICEF puts Canada 37th on its list of 41 rich countries for the number of children suffering from inadequate nutrition.

“Over 20% of Canadian children – 1.2 million of them – are living in poverty,” UNICEF reported, “with 22% of adolescents displaying mental health problems and nearly 25% of its children being obese. Canada also ranks 31st in its rate of teen suicides. It’s a myth that Canada is the best country in the world in which to grow up.”

UNICEF’s figures are substantiated by the last Canadian census, which also found that 1.2 million of our children are victims of poverty while living in low-income households. The agency defined “low income” as “after-tax household income that is less than the median of $22,133 for a single-person household, or less than $44,266 for a four-person household.”

An earlier UNICEF report had Canada tied for last place among 21 developed countries in its provision of early child-care services. Unlike countries in Europe, Canada still lacks a national, accessible, affordable, quality child care network. Most European nations have committed to providing an ECEC (Early Childhood Education and Care) place for all their children, either by legislating a legal entitlement or by making attendance available and compulsory. Eight of these countries – Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Germany, Slovenia, Estonia and Malta – guarantee a legal right to ECEC for all children soon after their birth.

More grim statistics

Other statistics gleaned from the last census and from various socioeconomic agencies tell us that 21% of single mothers in Canada have to raise their children while living in poverty; that since 1980 average incomes of the poorest in Canada have declined by 20% while part-time low-wage jobs have increased by 50%; that one in eight Canadian families have to rely on food banks and other charities, even though 62% of their breadwinners are employed in low-wage jobs; and that an estimated 235,000 people in Canada were homeless on any given night in 2016.

This is just a sample of the statistical evidence that the lives of millions of Canadians and their children are wretched, precarious, unhappy, and often tormented by cold and hunger. Especially appalling is our country’s inexcusable failure to attend to the needs of its youngest and most vulnerable citizens.

Our federal and provincial governments, instead of maintaining their tax revenue so as to significantly reduce poverty levels, have drained their treasuries with huge tax cuts for corporations and the affluent élite. This deliberate depletion of their financial capacity gives them the contrived excuse that, when it comes to helping poor kids – “as much as we’d like to do more, we simply can’t afford it.” Instead they have slashed their social spending to a level that is among the lowest in the developed nations.

The latest OECD report on the social expenditures of its 34 member countries ranks Canada 24th for its meager 17.2% of GDP spent on social services in 2016. Many of the 23 countries that surpass Canada have social spending rates of 25% or more, and several, including Finland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Belgium, Italy and Ireland, have rates higher than 28%. Incredibly, even the United States ranks above Canada with a social spending rate of 19% of GDP.

A not-so-happy Christmas

The horrific consequences of our country’s neglect of its children are most starkly exposed during the pre-Christmas period. That’s when well-off Canadians join in a national campaign to provide the pauperized children in our midst with toys to play with, warm clothing to wear, and a traditional holiday meal. We increase our donations to the food banks, the Salvation Army, the Toy Mountains.

We take pride in our efforts to help poor kids and their families share in the Yuletide celebration. But few of us ever ask ourselves why child poverty in such a rich country is so rampant that it makes the provision of pre-Christmas food, toys and clothing so necessary. And we block our minds, too, from the grim realization that, after their temporary relief from penury, after the Christmas lights are dimmed and the carols stop being sung, these hundreds of thousands of indigent children will slip back into the blight of destitution and deprivation.

Traumatized by their government’s callous dereliction, they and their parents will still have to depend on the food banks and other charities next year to save them from starvation.

Globally, they are among the billions of victims of the dominant economic system – uncontrolled and unregulated capitalism. It’s a stark “survival-of-the-fittest” system that promotes competition over co-operation, greed over grace, force over fairness, wealth over welfare. It’s an horrendous aggrandizement by the rich and powerful that maximizes wealth for the privileged few and poverty and inequality for the many. Inevitably, it has resulted in eight multi-billionaires amassing more wealth than three billion of the world’s inhabitants.

Social malignancies

Still, deep poverty and inequality are not rife everywhere. They are social malignancies that propagate in the rich countries with neoliberal governments – Canada among them – that are mainly dedicated to serving the powerful corporations and affluent élites. As the World Happiness polls disclose, however, dozens of countries (poor as well as rich) are blessed with governments that are not subservient to the business barons. They are progressive regimes truly committed to enhancing the well-being of all their citizens.

They do this either through an equitable tax system based on ability to pay that enables them to fund comprehensive social services (e.g., Denmark), or by doing the same by fairly apportioning their smaller but adequate GDP (e.g., Costa Rica).

In these genuinely democratic countries, poverty and inequality may not be entirely absent, but the relatively few affected are much better treated and cared for. Needless to say, child poverty in such countries is minimalized by universal social programs.

However, in countries where “free market” ideology rather than the public interest dictates a government’s agenda, the national income is disbursed through a free-for-all brawl that favours the most cunning, callous, and ruthless. The sensitive and ethical contestants don’t fare well in such a melee, and many wind up in low-paid jobs and poverty.

For neoliberal business and political leaders, that’s an unavoidable outcome of the economic system they prefer and profit from. As long as the food banks and other charities take them off the hook, they feel safe at election time. They can even afford to contribute generously to the food bank drives themselves.

As long as most Canadians continue to elect such regressive  neoliberal governments and tolerate the preventable mass impoverishment their policies precipitate, Canada will remain low on the list of the world’s happiest countries – even at Christmas time.