A young, sad looking child peering out through slats of a wooden deck of playground equipment.
Photo: Tadeusz Lakota

Nova Scotia has reduced its child poverty rate by just 0.1 of a percentage point in 30 years, making it the province with the worst child poverty reduction record in Canada.

That’s one of the takeaways from the 2021 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia.

Released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS), the annual report further highlighted the point by adding ‘Worst Provincial Performance over 30 Years’ to the study’s title.

“There’s 30 years of data now … How many generations of children have been trapped? How many families have been struggling? And yet we’ve managed to barely make a dent in child poverty in Nova Scotia,” CCPA-NS director and report co-author Christine Saulnier said in an interview Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s not even a 0.1%, it’s 0.1 of a percentage point. Of course it represents people, it represents children, so many thousands of children, and we should underline that.”

A photo of Christine Saulnier, who is has a long bob hairstyle, is wearing a black top with a colourful chunky necklace. She is sitting on a red sofa.
Christine Saulnier, Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA-NS). Photo: Trevor Beckerson, Foundary Photography

Based on 2019 data — the most recent available — the report’s release coincides with the release of the Campaign 2000 national report card on child and family poverty, along with provincial report cards from British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island.

‘Children’s poverty is family’s poverty’

Almost one in four children (41,230) in Nova Scotia currently live in poverty. In some regions that figure is even more bleak.

The report found that child poverty rates are highest in the Digby (34.7%) and Annapolis (33.7%) census areas. In Cape Breton — where the highest child poverty levels had been reported for several years — the rate was 33.5%.

That means in those three regions, more than one in three children live in poverty.

A table showing community poverty rates by census area in Nova Scotia.
Poverty rates by census area as published in Wednesday’s CCPA-NS report.

“The message is poverty eradication in all its forms. Children’s poverty is family’s poverty,” Saulnier said.

In addition to having the highest child poverty rate in Atlantic Canada consistently over several years, Nova Scotia has maintained its ranking of the third highest in Canada.

While child poverty rates have decreased in every province and territory since 1989, the report notes that Nova Scotia boasts “the poorest performance” in reducing child poverty.

The province’s child poverty rate in 2000 — the year it was supposed to be eradicated — stood at 27.8%. In 1989, it was 24.4%.

In 2019 (the figures informing this latest report), it was 24.3%. Children under the age of six fared even worse, with 27.9% of them living in poverty.

The lowest rate of child poverty is Stillwater Lake in HRM. The highest is in the postal code of Micmac, which includes part of the Sipekne’katik First Nations.

Among children living in lone parent families in the province, 51.7% live in poverty.

“I think 30 years of pre-pandemic evidence is enough to demonstrate that poverty has been legislated into existence through chosen policy approaches to social welfare and inadequate social programs that leave families and individuals struggling in deep poverty,” the report’s co-author Dr. Lesley Frank, said in a media release.

“With things undoubtedly worse now, swift and transformative action is paramount for the wellbeing of our children, families, and our province.”

‘Nova Scotia government has not done its part’

Saulnier and the report’s co-authors found that in 2019, government benefits lifted 26,810 children between the ages of zero to 17 out of poverty in Nova Scotia. Without those benefits, the province’s child poverty rate would have been 44.7% (68,110 children).

The report’s authors noted the federal government’s Canada Child Benefit was responsible for 87% of the overall reduction.

“We know that (benefits) make a difference. I look at the Canada Child Benefit being responsible for 87% of that reduction and it’s just clear, underlying proof that the Nova Scotia government has not done its part,” Saulnier said.

Although hopeful and encouraged that Premier Tim Houston has made child poverty reduction a priority for his government, Saulnier wants to see the words “reducing child poverty” replaced with “eradicating child poverty.” She said while it’s about income, it’s all about supporting people so they can afford what they need.

“Government has a huge role to play there,” Saulnier said.

Among their recommendations, the report’s authors want governments to deal with income and wealth inequality, focus on fostering a labour market that provides good jobs and economic security, transform social policy, and invest in social housing and other public infrastructure.

Saulnier would also like to see publicly reported, legislative targets, and timelines.

“We need the government to not respond in the ways that we have heard for I don’t know how many years now, which is ‘This is incorrect data.’ Well, it is the most recent available data on income poverty,” Saulnier said.

“You can maybe get a few other data points, but unless the government has done something drastic between 2019 and today, these numbers, if anything, will be worse.”

‘We need justice over charity’

The latest report card is described by its authors as an addition to a growing list of annual reports that “mostly tell the same story.”

Saulnier said while frustrating, she finds hope in the fact the report is increasingly being used by groups and organizations helping people in need.

“In Nova Scotia, people are generous. It isn’t the solution. We need social justice. We need justice over charity. But we know that communities are taking this up,” Saulnier said.

“And that gives me hope. More and more people understand that if we just roll in the same direction and government uses its power — including its revenue power — to actually implement solutions, we might get somewhere.”

Saulnier said if there’s one thing people take away from this year’s report, she hopes it’s the recognition that government has the ability to address the issue of child poverty and its eradication.

“We need to send that message, that this is absolutely unacceptable in our province, in one of the richest countries in the world,” Saulnier said.

“There are billions in our economy every year. This is not a poor province. We’re making choices about how we’re spending that money, and we can make different choices and address this problem.”

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Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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