As frontline workers in our schools, teachers see child poverty every day.
It arrives before the first morning bell when children bring hunger with them to school. They see it at recess, when a student doesn't have a warm coat for winter. And they see it during gym class, when a kid's only footwear are the runners he wore when he left home.
Child advocate Adrienne Montani knows there's plenty of work that has to be done when one in seven children in the B.C. school system are from families living below the poverty line. According to Statistics Canada, the child poverty rate in B.C. in 2009 was 14.3 per cent, up from 10.4 per cent in 2008, which means 119,000 public school students are considered poor. Only Manitoba ranks worse among Canadian provinces. For eight years in the past decade, B.C.'s child poverty rate led the country and it's been worse than the national average every year since 1999.
"There are serious consequences to high rates of poverty -- we're not making a lot of progress yet and we really can do something about it," said Montani, provincial co-ordinator of the First Call BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition.
"We can index minimum wage rates of our lowest paid workers, we want welfare [income] rates up, and we have to stop squeezing young families, and stop contracting out jobs. Social service supports, like child care, need to be in place and we need to look at why we're building an economy that is largely low-wage."
The United Nations declared Tuesday as International Child Poverty Day and during an afternoon information session at Duchess Park secondary school, Montani offered a group of about 70 teachers and parents a sneak preview of First Call BC's annual child poverty report card, to be released today in Vancouver.
Montani said while the figures contained in the 2012 report have changed slightly from last year's, the issues remain the same. The new figures still show that groups traditionally most vulnerable to poverty -- children of female lone-parent families, children of recent immigrants, aboriginals and children living with disabilities, ad welfare recipients -- are over-represented in poverty statistics.
"We've institutionalized food banks and other places because [welfare incomes] are totally inadequate to cover shelter and food, and that's prescription for poor health for kids and poor outcomes in schools," she said.
In 2009, for people living in city the size of Prince George, Statistics Canada considered the before-tax low-income poverty indicator cut-off at $35,573 for a two-parent, two-child family, and $19,144 for a single person.
First Call BC recommends the province's minimum wage should be adjusted to reflect the Consumer Price Index. On May 1, the minimum wage in B.C. jumped from $9.50 per hour to the current $10.25 per hour, but Montani says that's still high not enough. Just to reach the poverty line, First Call B.C estimates a minimum wage of $11 was needed as of Nov. 1, 2012, jumping to $13 by May 1, 2013.
"The government says the best thing is to have a job, but not if you have a job that doesn't take you above the poverty line," said Montani. "Most poor children in the province have parents who are working."
Montani said young parents are the age of 25 have higher poverty rates than the general population. Part of the problem is the high rate of student debt they incur in post-secondary studies.
"As a society, we're making it very hard for families to get out of poverty and raise children in a healthy way, and it has huge impacts on their health and development," she said. "We're paying for those costs now with higher rates of chronic disease. It's going to cost us twice as much to keep doing what we're doing as opposed to making some investments in early childhood and supporting families better."
She points to a provincial government factsheet on child poverty that states nearly a million B.C. families receive Medical Services Plan health care premium subsidies, while more than 800,000 individuals and families pay no health care premiums at all.
"I wouldn't crow about that," said Montani. "That means over 800,000 people earn less than $22,000 a year and about a million make less than $30,000 a year.
"We're the only province that even charges MSP premiums."
First Call BC represents more than 90 organizations like the B.C. Teachers Federation, including social agencies, health professionals, and child and youth care workers.
Following her presentation, Montani took part in an anti-poverty march from Duchess Park to the downtown constituency office of Shirley Bond, MLA for Prince George-Valemount. The group collected clothing that was delivered to the Elizabeth Fry Society.