Editorial: Let’s not wait for poverty reduction

May 8, 2012
Jonathan Teghtmeyer

My daughter doesn’t know this, but it’s a good thing she woke me at 5:30 this morning. At six months old, she couldn’t possibly know that my editorial needed to be written today and I needed a few extra hours to work on it.

My daughter also doesn’t realize that the topic of my editorial—child poverty in Alberta—doesn’t affect her directly (touch wood). She’s fortunate that her parents don’t have to worry about being able to buy diapers, baby food, clothes or toys. In time, I’ll teach her to appreciate what she has and not take it for granted. My upbringing was much more modest; I want her to understand that even though our family of five children was supported by the modest income of a public sector labourer, we had it better than many other children.

Child poverty in such a wealthy province is unconscionable, and the consequences of child poverty affect us all. At the Public Interest Alberta ­advocacy conference, Make Shift Happen, held April 19–21, ATA ­President Carol Henderson spoke about the connections between poverty, health and education. She provided her audience with shocking data about child poverty in Canada and Alberta—of the top 20 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, Canada ranks 15th in overall poverty and 16th in child poverty. In 2009, 73,000 Alberta children under the age of 18 years lived in poverty. This appallingly high number—1 in 10 children!—represents a 40 per cent increase in the number of children living in poverty in just one year. And the rate is far higher for young children: one in eight children in Alberta under the age of six ­(approximately 34,000) live in poverty.*

The data alone are shocking, but even more outrageous is that ­Alberta is one of three provinces/territories that do not have a strategy to reduce poverty, even though such strategies are proven to work. For example, in the first seven years after Quebec introduced its strategy in 2002, the percentage of families living on low incomes decreased from 12.3 to 9.4 per cent.

Poverty and income inequality have dramatically negative effects on educational attainment and health outcomes. Research is clear that the strongest single predictor of academic achievement is the socioeconomic status of a student’s family. Furthermore, a 2004 Canadian Population Health ­Initiative report stated: “People with less than secondary education were twice as likely to report problems with their functional health (27%), compared with people with post-secondary education or higher (13%).”

Allowing 1 in 10 children to live in poverty costs Albertans dearly and contributes to a continuing downward spiral in the lives of many people. Poverty is linked with lower educational attainment and worse health outcomes that, in turn, damage potential income generation. The Alberta Coalition for Healthy School Communities wrote in 2006 that “education, health and socioeconomic status interact in such a way as to perpetuate advantage or disadvantage. Better education leads to better health and vice versa.”

I’m grateful that my daughter doesn’t have to worry about where her next meal will come from or if she’ll have a home to live in next month. A strong public education system and equitable access to postsecondary education allowed my wife and me to get the education we needed to ensure we could provide a stable environment for us and our daughter.

During Alberta’s recent provincial election campaign, Premier Alison Redford promised that her government would develop a 10-year plan to reduce poverty and a five-year plan to eliminate child poverty. She pledged that consultations will begin this month. Of all her election promises, this one in particular must be honoured. A strategy is long overdue and ­desperately needed. Children living in poverty do not have the luxury of time to wait this one out.

* Source: In This Together: Ending Poverty in Alberta, Public Interest Alberta, ­November 2011

I welcome your comments—contact me at jonathan.teghtmeyer@ata.ab.ca.