Public Interest Alberta recently released the fifth annual report on child poverty in Alberta, The Path Forward: Opportunities to End Child Poverty in Alberta, with the Edmonton Social Planning Council and the Alberta College of Social Workers. I had the opportunity in April to present on the report’s findings to a conference in Grande Prairie hosted by the ATA’s Committee on the Well-Being of Children and Youth and am pleased to share some of its contents with you here. The report details the state of child poverty in Alberta today and points to several areas where our provincial government is making progress, as well as several others that still require action.
The report finds that nearly one in six Alberta children live in low-income households, a rate that has remained roughly the same since 2006. Major factors contributing to that statistic are high numbers of adults earning low wages and steadily increasing wealth inequality in the province. In 2015, nearly one in five Alberta workers were earning $15 per hour or less, and 79 per cent of those low-wage workers were at least 20 years old.
The longer-term trend for income growth is equally troubling. Over the past 30 years, the top one per cent of income earners have seen their wages grow by 72 per cent, while the bottom 99 per cent have seen only an 11 per cent increase. That trend is not inevitable; it is a direct result of misguided policies of the past.
Alberta’s teachers and their professional association have long been concerned about and active on issues related to the effects of poverty on children, since teachers see every day in their classrooms poverty’s negative and limiting impact on so many students. Teachers’ frustrations in this regard have led to decades of ATA support for advocacy and initiatives on behalf of these children.
Thankfully, there is hope that our province is turning the corner in many respects, despite the difficult financial situation the new government finds itself in. The government has replaced Alberta’s flat income tax with a progressive income tax, which raised taxes on those earning roughly $140,000 per year or more. They also increased taxes on the profits of large corporations by two per cent. While serving to lessen income inequality, these measures have also helped the government to invest in areas that will reduce child poverty.
Since being elected last spring, the government has fulfilled several of the recommendations of our 2014 report on child poverty. Those recommendations include increasing funding to Family and Community Support Services (FCSS) and affordable housing, introducing a child tax benefit, enhancing working income tax benefits and substantially increasing the minimum wage. Each of those measures will help families with the lowest incomes meet their basic needs.
There is still much to be done. Alberta’s major social assistance programs, Alberta Works and Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), should be indexed to inflation and likely require immediate increases beyond that. Our child care spaces are some of the least affordable in the country, with rates in our major cities of up to $1,100 per month per child. We also have a shortage of regulated child care spaces and need to improve the quality of care by increasing the professionalization of the child care workforce. And as teachers know all too well, fulfilling the government’s election promises of reducing class sizes, reducing (and ideally eliminating) mandatory school fees introducing a school lunch program and strengthening supports for students with complex needs would all serve to combat child poverty both in the short term and the long term.
Alberta’s teachers as individuals can play an important role in the year ahead to help bring about these essential changes in this new and more promising political context. First, we can inform our families, friends and neighbours about these issues and opportunities. But we also have an even bigger opportunity with our MLAs, the vast majority of whom are new to their positions. In the end, child poverty is a political issue, and as citizens we need to educate our elected leaders about these issues and encourage them to act on them. Alberta’s MLAs are faced with many issues, and we need to convince them to make the elimination of child poverty a top priority, which will have the important additional benefit of helping to ensure that all of our province’s children are successful as learners.
I urge you to download the report at pialberta.org or request printed copies from our office to take to your local MLA. By keeping these issues in front of our elected officials on a regular basis and letting them know we expect them to take action, we can make the most of this opportunity and play an important role in bringing about an end to child poverty in Alberta. ❚
Joel French is the executive director of Public Interest Alberta.