Although Nova Scotia’s child poverty rate decreased by a record-breaking 24.3% in 2020 due to federal pandemic transfers, one in six children were still living in poverty and immigrants, Indigenous, and racialized children were disproportionately affected. 

Those are among the findings of a new report by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives-Nova Scotia (CCPA-NS). The 2022 Report Card on Child and Family Poverty in Nova Scotia: Kids Can’t Wait was released Thursday.

“Government transfers work. The troubling thing is that those investments in 2020 were temporary. Where we’re at now, we’re hearing from our community partners that they’re seeing a depth of poverty and this inability to meet basic needs in striking ways that they’ve never witnessed before,” CCPA-NS research associate and report co-author Dr. Lesley Frank said in an interview. 

“My worry would be a headline of, ‘Yes, we need to celebrate this reduction in 2020.’ But we can’t take our eye off the target of child poverty and family poverty and poverty for everybody’s eradication, because these investments were not sustained.”

A woman with blond shoulder length hair wearing a black shirt stands against a dark green background and looks intensely into the camera.
Acadia University professor and CCPA-NS research associate Dr. Lesley Frank. Credit: Contributed

Province did ‘very little’

The 24.3% drop in the province’s child poverty rate from 2019 to 2020 marked the most significant single-year reduction since tracking began. The report’s authors stated it was “almost entirely” due to federal pandemic relief support and top-ups that have since ended.

In 2020, more than 569,000 Nova Scotians (69.5% of those over the age of 15) received COVID-related assistance. The authors stated that nine other provinces and territories “were more effective in reducing child poverty using government transfers than Nova Scotia.”

The report also found the total support to Nova Scotians in 2020 amounted to $2.088 billion. Only 0.3% of that was from the provincial government, with the remaining 99% coming from the federal government.  

“The province did very little in terms of COVID benefits that would have helped lower this child poverty rate,” Frank said. “They actually do very little in general in other years as well because they’re not bold enough to bring a family over the poverty threshold.”

The authors said only 4% of low-to-moderate income families with children received any provincial COVID-19 support.

‘More likely to live in poverty if they immigrate to Nova Scotia’

The findings of the annual Nova Scotia child poverty report card are based on 2020 data and also included 2021 Census information.

Despite the significant reduction in child poverty in 2020, 18.4% of Nova Scotian children —more than one in six — were still living in low-income families. The rates were much higher for children who are Indigenous, racialized, or immigrants.

“The poverty rate for immigrant children in Nova Scotia is 32.6%, more than double that of non-immigrant children (15.9%),” the report’s authors wrote. “This rate is significantly higher than the national average (18.8%), meaning they are more likely to live in poverty if they immigrate to Nova Scotia.”

The report found that government benefits in 2020 (including the CERB) reduced child poverty by 55.9%. This meant 26,810 children in Nova Scotia between the ages of 0 and 17 were lifted out of poverty. The authors noted that without the temporary pandemic benefits, 14,500 additional children in Nova Scotia would have been low income. 

“We had years where the child poverty rate decreased and decreased over small periods of time, perhaps three years in a row. And the reason it decreased during those previous times was because of federal investments,” Frank said.

“But what happens in Nova Scotia historically is we will see the impact of that lowering our child poverty rate at these moments in time. But that lowering isn’t sustained in our province because of a lack of provincial investment.”

Child poverty rate of 41.4% without federal funds

Frank points to the Nova Scotia Child Benefit not being indexed to inflation. 

“While we have the potential to have our child poverty rate continue to lower with indexed federal investments, because our provincial investments aren’t bold enough and don’t keep pace with inflation, we see the power of that reduction just stall,” she said.

Frank, who’s also the Canada Research Chair in food health and social justice at Acadia University, points out that without the federal pandemic transfers, Nova Scotia’s child poverty rate in 2020 would’ve been 41.4%. 

“This newest report card shows that even under the worst conditions, a pandemic and almost a complete shutdown of the economy, because the government acted quickly and boldly, we saw in just one year a record reduction in child poverty in Nova Scotia,” Frank said. 

Disaggregated poverty rates for racialized and Indigenous children

The 2021 census data provided the report’s authors with disaggregated child poverty rates that underlined systemic inequalities they stressed were necessary to address.

At 29.5%, the poverty rate for racialized children in Nova Scotia was almost double the rate for non-racialized children (15.8%). 

The highest poverty rate for racialized children was 56.9% of Korean children (compared to a national rate of 23.5% for Korean children), and the second highest was 55.2% of Arab children (26.3% in Canada). The poverty rate for Black children in Nova Scotia was 27.6%. That was also higher than the Canadian rate of 18.6%.

The researchers wrote that data also showed Indigenous children living on and off First Nations reserves are more at risk of poverty. Those in Nova Scotia living on reserve had a child poverty rate of 43.5%. The rate for those living off reserve was 22.4%.

‘When children grow up poor, they often stay poor’

“There are new things in this report card, but the patterns are pretty similar when you start disaggregating the data,” Frank said. “Those underlining inequality dynamics that are at the root of poverty, those haven’t changed.”

The report also found a higher incidence of poverty for children in Nova Scotia under six (21.3%) and children living in families with three or more children (21.4%). 

“What’s needed? bold action, swift action. We saw it happen in 2020. But it can’t be temporary,” Frank said. “We either pay them now or we pay them later in health care costs, we pay them later in terms of what it does for productivity. When children grow up poor, they often stay poor.”

Although the report card has always found higher rates of poverty for lone-parent families compared to couple families, the authors were able to further disaggregate that data.

They found that lone mother-led families had higher rates of child poverty than sole father-led families (37.8% versus 28.7%). Both rates are much higher than for children living in families with two parents (9.9%).

“Access to child care is an equity issue for immigrant and migrant women, particularly for lone mother-led families. Not only access to services but access to information defines how they experience inequity,” María José Yax Fraser, capacity building committee chair for the Immigrant Migrant Women’s Association of Halifax, said in a CCPA-NS media release.

“The data point to the need to use an intersectional lens and invest in programs and services that respond to the root causes of these higher rates, addressing inequities in pay, employment, and ensuring everyone has access to services regardless of immigration status.”

From 5.1% in Upper Tantallon to 60% in postal area of Micmac

The data also shows how child poverty rates vary by geography. The authors found it can vary “quite substantially” in urban and rural areas. The report notes:

The child poverty rates are highest in Digby (27.3%), Annapolis (25.7%), and Cape Breton (24.8%) when considering Census Areas. Twelve postal areas have child poverty rates of 30% and higher. The range of rates is quite significant, from a low of 5.1% in Upper Tantallon, part of the Halifax Regional Municipality, to a high of 60% in the postal area of Micmac, which includes part of the Sipekne’katik First Nations.

It should also be noted that postal cities for urban areas of the province (Halifax and Dartmouth)…are aggregates of several postal areas. Such totals disguise higher child poverty rates in certain areas of urban Nova Scotia. For example, child poverty rates based on smaller postal units…within the Halifax postal city range from 15.4% (B3P codes – Armdale/Purcells Cove neighbourhoods) to 30.6% (B3J codes – Downtown Halifax) to a high of 32.8% in Spryfield (B3R codes).

Similarly, rates range in the Dartmouth postal city from 6.6% (B2V codes – Morris Lake/Cole Harbour) to 25.8% (B3A codes – North Dartmouth/ North Dartmouth/Harbourview/Highfield park/Albro Lake/Crichton Park neighbourhoods). Postal Area data suggest that the province’s rural and urban areas experience high rates of child poverty.

‘Children can’t wait’

“It’s important to recognize the improvement (decrease in the 2020 child poverty rate) and celebrate that, but to also be clear that it didn’t help every child. And poverty eradication for children is paramount, it’s necessary, and it’s doable,” Frank said. 

“That’s the takeaway, I think, from what happened in 2020. Government interventions can work, do work, and they need to be boldly done and they need to be done swiftly because these are children and children can’t wait.”

Frank said the federal government proved what can be done, but it needs to be sustained. She also believes it’s “well past time” for the provincial government to do its part. She said following the 2021 election the Houston government was “pretty swift” in declaring a need to act on reducing child poverty and create a plan for a five-year target. 

“We haven’t heard what that is yet, so we’re waiting to see the provincial budget being tabled in a few weeks,” Frank said. “That will be the test, I guess, of their commitment on this.”

Nova Scotians ‘ashamed’ of child poverty record

The report also found that Nova Scotia had the fourth-highest child poverty rate in Canada and continues to have the highest rate in Atlantic Canada. 

Frank said she’s been researching child poverty and its impacts for many years. She has seen it grow into an issue of increasing importance for Nova Scotians.

“We for years had the highest child poverty rate in Atlantic Canada. That hasn’t changed, and I do think Nova Scotians are ashamed of that record. We can’t afford to ignore poverty. We can give voice to those who don’t have a voice and demand action of our governments,” Frank said. 

“I do think Nova Scotians care deeply about this issue. And in the moment we’re in right now, where more and more people are experiencing struggles to afford groceries, are suffering from the housing crisis, I feel that there’s a growing collective spirit that is calling for political change, political action on this issue.”

The Nova Scotia report comes on the heels of a Campaign 2000 national report card on child and family poverty released Feb. 15 and reported here. It found that child poverty in Canada overall was reduced by 40% in 2020. That report included no Nova Scotia-specific details beyond provincial child poverty rankings.

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

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