Spending our way to more poverty

In 2006, Danny Williams declared poverty reduction a strategic priority for the province. Since then childhood poverty has risen 70%.

Now more than a fifth of all our youth live in poverty; that’s a rate 60% worse than the Canadian average. Indeed, a quarter of the children born since Danny Williams declared poverty reduction to be a priority lives in poverty. The situation is even worse for elderly women.

We know this because on Sept. 11 Statistics Canada released its National Household Survey (NHS) income estimates for 2010. Sadly, even these shocking figures almost certainly underestimate the gravity of the situation.

Designed by the Harper administration to replace the mandatory long form census, the NHS was voluntary. One in four Canadians and almost one in three Newfoundlanders chose not to participate. The non-response rates were highest for people living on reserves, in the poorest urban neighbourhoods, and in communities smaller than 5,000 people. Places where poverty is most likely to be concentrated are significantly under-represented in the NHS.

What does the graph show?

The bar graph shows that the provincial government has put their money where their mouth was. More than a billion dollars of provincial revenues has been spent on the Poverty Reduction Strategy since 2006. The lines show that the situation for families and individuals was improving. We were apparently on track to transform Newfoundland and Labrador from being the province with the worst poverty in 2006 to the one with the least poverty by 2015. The three stars show, however, that we may not have been paying attention to the most important indicators.

If you don’t measure it, you can’t see it.

Neither the provincial tracking of a market basket” for families, nor the federal government’s “low income measure” for individuals told us how many children live in poverty, nor how age and gender combine to feminize poverty among the elderly. Indeed, none of the 14 “objective indicators” developed by the provincial Community Accounts to measure well-being focus on either children or gender.

Where do we stand?

The NHS considered anyone earning less than one half the median income after tax to be in poverty. This is a widely used measure, so we can see how badly we are doing. Compared to 35 “economically advanced countries” studied by UNICEF, our provincial child poverty rate would rank us the 34th worst, almost dead even with the United States, nestled between Latvia and Romania. Our poverty rate among elderly women is 62% above the Canadian average and when compared to 17 economically similar countries analysed by the Conference Board of Canada, only Australia had a higher poverty rate among its elderly than we do.

Childhood and elder poverty generate very substantial long-term costs. The Canadian Medical Association found it to be the single most important contributor to ill-health in the country. We have the wealth to not just reduce poverty in our province, but to eliminate it. This will not happen on its own. We need effective, measurable and focused goals to guide our strategic efforts. Since 2006, the provincial Poverty Reduction Strategy has consumed more than $26,500 for every child and elderly person currently living in poverty in the province. Clearly, it is not working for the most vulnerable among us. We are in dire need of a radical change in strategy.

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