Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
June 18, 2001
The Saskatchewan Advantage
The soul of a nation, or any other group of people can be seen in how it treats the most disadvantaged. We have this on the authority of Jesus himself: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40).
In Canada, in recent years, we have made one significant improvement. It's called the National Child Benefit and increased funding is helping to bring a lot of children out of poverty.
Twelve years ago, the House of Commons passed a resolution to do its best to eliminate child poverty by the year 2000. This is a particularly important goal for society. Children live in poverty through no fault of their own. Yet poor children are severely disadvantaged in the opportunities they have and in their ability to create a bright future for themselves. Eliminating child poverty is crucial for any society that respects the dignity of all people.
However, the years following the House of Commons resolution were not good ones for children in need. The percentage of Canadian children living below the poverty line grew from 11.8 per cent in 1989 to 16.3 per cent in 1997. Further, those living below the poverty line fell even further below it during this period.
While the early 1990s were marked by a sluggish economy, that was no longer so by the middle of the decade. Government cutbacks to social programs, including welfare, were likely the main culprit behind the increasing number of poor children. Government deficits were being reduced on the backs of the poor.
In 1998, the child poverty rate fell significantly to 14.1 per cent. We can hope that further improvements to the National Child Benefit and a still growing economy have by now brought the rate down to the 1989 level. The goal of the 1989 resolution is still far away, but the situation is now at least moving in the right direction.
The improvements, however, have not been equally spread across Canada. Some provinces are more determined than others to bring child poverty to heel.
A report released earlier this month by the Canadian Council on Social Development found that Saskatchewan has done a much better job than either Alberta or Ontario in reducing child poverty, especially among single-parent families. Between 1993 and 1998, Saskatchewan cut the incidence of poverty among single-parent families from 51 to 20 per cent.
It accomplished this not by increasing welfare rates - rates for a single parent with one child were actually cut by almost 10 per cent - but by a myriad of other programs such as child-care subsidies, a prescription drug plan and provincial income supplement. In 1998-99, Saskatchewan spent $37 million on child benefit programs compared with $6 million in Alberta, a province with a population three times as large.
Alberta Children's Services Minister Iris Evans downplays the CCSD report and says her department has doubled its budget since 1998. However, we likely still have a long way to go to match the record of a province with far fewer economic resources than Alberta.
The CCSD study provides further contrary evidence to the belief that a wealthy society will trickle some of that wealth down to the poor. What is more likely is that governments that put a priority on ending poverty achieve that end more readily than those that believe in the trickle-down myth.
The Alberta government frequently trumpets the Alberta Advantage - that lower taxes and a favourable economic climate are good reasons for companies to locate here. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of former Saskatchewan residents live in Alberta because of the economic climate here.
But that's only one side of the coin. The other side is that a healthy community not only provides economic opportunity, it also provides a helping hand to those least able to help themselves.
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