November 23 was the National Day of Remembrance for Road Crash Victims, and the B.C. government marked the event with a presser to announce a 40 per cent decrease in drunk driving deaths since they introduced tougher drunk driving legislation. Speaking about drunk driving victim Alexa Middelaer, who was four years old when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver, Premier Christy Clark teared up in front of the cameras.
It is indeed sad that Alexa died, especially so young. But there were no tears in front of cameras from the Premier on that day when First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released their 2011 Child Poverty Report Card, showing B.C. as having the highest child poverty rate after taxes for the eighth year in a row.
To be fair, these numbers aren’t Clark’s fault. Statistics Canada only releases the income information First Call needs two years after the fact, so these statistics are actually from 2009 when the recession was still happening. The measurement methods themselves are also controversial: the Low-Income Cut Offs, before and after tax, measure low-income based on cost of living in communities of a certain population, thus not taking into account students, people who don’t pay taxes, or cities of similar size that have different costs of living (think Montreal compared to Vancouver).
What isn’t in doubt, however, is that people are still slipping between the cracks in our society. Just over 90,000 people in B.C. used food banks in March 2011. That’s down 4 per cent from last year, but still 15 per cent higher than the number of people who used them in 2008. As of May 2008, there were over 13,400 people on BC Housing’s wait list for social housing, and no new social housing units have been announced since 2008–this is in stark contrast to the 1,000-1,500 new social housing units that were opening every year in the early to mid 1990s.
Despite a lack of tears, genuine or not, from Premier Clark over poor families in this province, she has time to turn her government’s track record on poverty and homelessness around. She’s already raised the minimum wage, though it could be much higher, and announced a new pre- and post-natal nursing program to help mothers at risk (although that, too, has caused controversy). Here are three suggestions for what else she can do to bring the people of this province on track:
1) Start building non-supportive social housing, too: The latest bout of social housing announced in B.C., the eight sites in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, were all single room occupancy hotels with costly social services. These rooms are needed, and in fact we could use more of them, but they don’t help families of more than two people, or single people who don’t need drug, alcohol, or mental health treatment. Plus, residents who graduate from these treatment programs will need housing they can transition into when their treatment is over.
2) Make an anti-poverty strategy: B.C. and Manitoba are the only provinces left that haven’t made a comprehensive plan to bring up and keep their citizens out of poverty. The B.C. Liberals insist that they have one already, it’s just not called that. They have no documented proof of the different ministries working together to battle poverty, through education, housing, and employment strategies, and I think we’d all feel a lot better if we knew the ministries were working together on this and had a goal in sight.
3) More funding for education: We keep hearing about how education under the Liberal government is the highest it’s ever been. Of course it is–if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be able to pay for any of the supplies or programs that have increased in cost over the years. This doesn’t mean the percentage of money put into education is the highest ever, and the BC Teachers Federation maintains that at least $336 million was cut in 2001/02 when the government illegally introduced Bills 27 and 28 to change class size and composition in B.C. We could use that funding to increase early childhood education access; or we could use it to build more schools where students are taking classes in portables; or to buy art supplies where teachers are paying out of their own pockets for paint. It’s a widely cited fact that children who have access to education not only grow up to make more money than those who don’t graduate or go onto university or college, but that they’re engaged more in their society: they vote, they’re healthier, they stay out of jail, and they live longer.
The government will fire back that in these tough economic times, we can’t afford these programs. But governments always have access to money: taxes. Yes, the HST was wildly unpopular, and perhaps not the fairest method of taxing citizens. But why not take another look at income tax–the highest income tax rate in B.C. is 14.7 per cent, only 9.7 per cent higher than the lowest. We could and should expect more from our wealthier residents. I’m not advocating for taxing them into poverty, or even the middle class, but if this government is serious about putting “Families First,” we need to do more than just raise the minimum wage and build some SROs in the Downtown Eastside: we need to put our money where our most vulnerable are.