Children, poverty and Alberta’s classrooms

February 28, 2013
Bill Moore-Kilgannon

We must eliminate child poverty in Alberta

It started with transmission problems in her car. Cathy, a single mom with a 10-year-old son, had earned a modest living for years cleaning people’s homes. She could make more money cleaning homes than working a low-wage service industry job, and it allowed her to be at home when her son returned from school.

However, when her car troubles began, Cathy had difficulty getting to her clients’ homes; consequently, she lost contracts at the same time that she needed to pay for car repairs. She fell behind paying some of her utility bills and was two weeks late paying rent. Although she had never been late with her rent before, the landlord evicted her—Cathy had to be out four weeks before Christmas. Once people are behind paying bills, they receive a bad credit rating and are often unable to find a landlord who will rent to them.

Desperate, Cathy turned to Alberta’s Ministry of Human Services for help. Instead of receiving assistance, she was told she should not be living in south Edmonton because rents were too high and she should move to northeast Edmonton. Cathy did not want to move because her son liked his school and was finally getting the support he needed for his learning difficulties. Cathy was also told that she had a failed business model and, therefore, needed to get a job. Only after she moved and found a job would the ministry consider helping her. When she asked where she and her son were supposed to go when they were evicted, she was handed the addresses of homeless shelters.

Unfortunately, Cathy’s true story is common—a fact borne out by overwhelming evidence. On November 20, 2012—National Child Day—Public Interest Alberta (PIA), the Edmonton Social Planning Council and the Alberta College of Social Workers released their annual report on child and family poverty in Alberta: Achieving the Promise: Ending Poverty in Alberta. The report revealed that there were 91,000 children in Alberta in families living below the low income measure (LIM) after taxes in 2010. That is 11.3 per cent of all children in Alberta. For families with children under the age of six, the situation is even worse—one in six of those children (17.2 per cent, or 48,000 children) is below the LIM (www.pialberta.org).

Cathy’s story reveals another sobering aspect of poverty in our province: one in three (33.2 per cent) of female lone-parent families are below the LIM. Cathy's son is also an example of the more than 50 per cent of children in poor families that have at least one parent working full-time year round. In fact, one in four employed Albertans makes less than $15/hour, and 63 per cent of low-wage workers are women. Given this stark reality for so many families, we should not be shocked that more than 53,000 people rely on the food bank each month.

The good news is that there is growing demand for real action to prevent, reduce and ultimately eliminate poverty in Alberta. In fact, on April 11, 2012, Premier Alison Redford made the commitment that if elected, her government would develop a plan to eliminate child poverty in five years and reduce poverty for everyone in 10 years. Last fall, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock coordinated a broad-based public consultation into the Social Policy Framework, which will include an action plan to deliver on the premier’s promise (www.socialpolicy.alberta.ca).

Unfortunately, Premier Redford’s commitment to end child poverty was not backed up with additional investments. As a result, new strategies will come at the expense of cuts to existing human service programs, which are already stretched to the breaking point. With the Alberta government refusing to eliminate the flat tax in favour of a progressive tax system used in every other province in Canada, the premier and Minister Hancock’s social policy framework may end up being mere platitudes that won’t make any difference for people like Cathy and her son.

Alberta’s teachers don’t need to imagine the influence of Cathy’s situation on her son and his education—every day teachers see the effect of poverty on students and learning. Alberta Teachers’ Association President Carol Henderson spoke passionately at PIA’s “Achieving the Promise” forum (November 2012) about why teachers must join others who are on the front lines of advocating for a comprehensive plan to address the growing inequality in Alberta. Alberta’s teachers have long been in the forefront of the struggle to end child poverty, and their efforts have been appreciated by civil society groups around the province.

Much more must be done. As clearly described in the ATA’s report A Great School for All, even as class sizes have increased there has been a declining support for children with special needs. Investments in education are critical if the education system is to play a major role in preventing, reducing and eliminating poverty in Alberta. Conversely, investments in a comprehensive poverty-reduction plan will have a positive influence on classroom conditions for these children.

Just as Cathy's story demonstrates that one problem (a car repair) can set into play a series of setbacks that can devastate a family, Albertans must realize that cuts to their social infrastructure will have a lasting effect on the health of the province’s society and economy. As fiscal conservatives call for massive cuts in the upcoming provincial budget (March 7, 2013), teachers and their education partners must challenge this short-sighted thinking that will lead to growing inequality and more problems in learning for our least advantaged children. In the end, if we are serious about our goal of developing the full potential of all children, we must eliminate child poverty in Alberta.

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Bill Moore-Kilgannon is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta (PIA). Prior to joining PIA, he worked in Ottawa as the director of campaigns and communications of the Council of Canadians and was the executive director of the Parkland Institute at the University of Alberta.