Sharon Prenevost, with a rag doll sent to politicians, tells of the impact of child hunger.

Sharon Prenevost, with a rag doll sent to politicians, tells of the impact of child hunger.

December 2, 2013
CHRIS MILLER
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

About 91,000 Alberta children live in poverty. Of those children, 28,000 live in Edmonton.

Those children most likely to live in poverty are those aged 15 to 17 not living with their family, children cared for by parents under 24, recent immigrants, aboriginal children and single-parent, female-headed families.

Moreover, poverty is hard, not only on the poor, but on the economy. Poverty costs Albertans $7.1 billion a year in health care, crime, and intergenerational and opportunity costs.

At the Catholic Pastoral and Administration Offices on Nov. 21, about 50 people showed up to discuss ways to end child poverty in Alberta.

Bob McKeon, director of social justice for the Edmonton Archdiocese, said a positive sign is that both Premier Alison Redford and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson campaigned on strong poverty reduction platforms.

Susan Lynch told the gathering that the first three to five years of life lay the foundation for a child's future.

Lynch, project director of the University of Alberta's Community-University Partnership, said about a fifth to a quarter of children experience great difficulty in communication, language and thinking skills, emotional maturity, social competence, and physical health and well-being.

"Clearly, a substantial number of children are not getting the start in life they need," said Lynch.

This means that a significant percentage of children struggle with basic, age-appropriate tasks such as holding a crayon, climbing stairs or following simple instructions, she said.

Poverty and unstable family environments increase the risk of developmental problems, she said. But the greatest number of vulnerable children comes from middle-class homes because this group makes up the biggest part of the population.

STRUGGLING CHILDREN

"I'm not saying that because I think we should ignore children in poverty," she clarified. "I'm just saying that there are children struggling in every community, and it doesn't only happen in communities where the poverty is deep."

Lynch based her comments on a study based on data collected on 87,000 Alberta children, aged five or thereabouts.

Sharon Prenevost, a retired teacher from Lethbridge, is with the Child Well-Being Initiative, a project of Alberta women with the United Church. It is a grassroots movement concerned with the unacceptable level of child poverty in Alberta.

She said only six Canadian provinces have poverty action plans, and Alberta is not one of them.

"We say that it's an emergency when a child is going to school hungry or sleeping in a church basement because he has no home," said Prenevost.

Since then, the group has raised awareness about this problem by using petitions, letters, essays, art, stories and workshops.

"For the last seven years we have taken a variety of actions, raising the awareness of Alberta citizens and our elected officials to this issue of child poverty and its problems," she explained.

One advocacy project was the 2010 Hope project, with the group members making hand-stitched ragdolls distributed to Alberta MLAs and other people of influence.

The Child Well-Being Initiative has held child poverty workshops around the province. It has spearheaded letter-writing campaigns, petitioned the Alberta government, presented 91,000 paper dolls to MLAs, and held three major rallies at the Legislature.

Since 2009, the group has invited Alberta students to answer the question: "What if every child in Alberta had enough to eat and a safe home?"

Each year the students' art and writing is presented in a book format to the premier.

COMBAT POVERTY BROCHURES

Prenevost distributed brochures with specific suggestions for combating child poverty.

The brochures outline the need for an Alberta-government poverty reduction strategy, province-wide meal programs for hungry children, more affordable housing for families, a higher minimum wage in Alberta, more affordable and safe daycare spaces for working parents, and leaders who steer the province away from child poverty.