Child poverty remains a blight on Nova Scotia: report

Nova Scotia has the highest rate of child poverty in Atlantic Canada and lags behind all other provinces and territories in eradicating it, a new study has found.

The province’s child poverty rate was 24.3 per cent in 2019, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ report card on child and family poverty in Nova Scotia. That’s down slightly from the 2018 figure of 24.6 per cent, but nearly identical to what it was three decades earlier.

“24.4% was the child poverty rate in 1989, when the promise was made to eradicate child poverty by the year 2000, which means poverty has only been reduced by 0.1 of a percentage point in Nova Scotia over 30 years,” the report says.

Nova Scotia’s child poverty rate would have been even higher in 2019 — 44.7 per cent — if not for federal income supports like the Canada Child Benefit, the report says. “(A) large proportion of the effect of government transfers in reducing child poverty in Nova Scotia can be attributed to the federal government.”

Sociology professor Lesley Frank, who has helped write the scorecard for the past two decades, lamented the lack of progress.

“There will be changes in geographical ways,” she said of the yearly accounting of child poverty in the province, “but the overall pattern stays the same. And in terms of the goal of poverty eradication, we have made no progress.”

Frank said the effects of childhood poverty are complex, numerous, and often long-lasting.

“There’s mountains of evidence on the impact of poverty on children’s development,” she said. “It sets the trajectory for lifelong health.”

“It can impact the mental proficiency of children later on in their behavioural outcomes.”

Frank said the worst rates of child poverty are found in the youngest children.

“The highest rates are actually in our babies, children under one,” she said. “Starting right from poor pre-natal nutrition, that increases the odds of low birth-weight infants. Low birth-weight infants are at greater risk of physical and mental disability, and even premature mortality.”

The census divisions with the three highest rates of child poverty were scattered across the province: Digby (34.7 per cent), Annapolis (33.7), and Cape Breton (33.5).

The postal areas with the three highest rates were all Indigenous communities: Micmac (73.3 per cent), Wagmatcook (71.4), and Eskasoni (66.9).

More than 41,000 children were found to be living in poverty across the province. Dramatically reducing this number will require a seismic shift in how Nova Scotia is governed, the report says.

“To truly tackle inequality, we must embrace systems that more effectively redistribute wealth and constrain income and wealth concentration, ensure living wages and pay equity, increase social housing and other public infrastructure, and consider targeted measures for marginalized groups being responsive to the diversity of needs of all those living in low-income.”

CCPA Nova Scotia makes a number of recommendations in the report, including a call for a “comprehensive, robust Poverty Eradication Plan” based on the group’s social policy framework.

The report also recommends the creation of a Child and Youth Advocate office, regular public reporting to the legislature on efforts to reduce child poverty, pay equity in the private sector, a $15 minimum wage, and expanding universal public health care to include mental health care, pharmacare, dental care, and vision care.

Nova Scotia’s ruling Progressive Conservatives rarely mentioned family poverty during this year’s provincial election. Child poverty appeared only once in the party’s 130-page campaign platform and was framed as a product of economic under-performance rather than a lack of government intervention.

“Settling for weak leadership has saddled us with, as of March 2021, the sad distinction as having the lowest GDP per capita in the country,” the PC platform said. “We are not growing. Not growing leaves people behind. It’s the reason Nova Scotia has the third highest poverty rate in the country and the highest in Atlantic Canada, with the highest child poverty rate in the country in Cape Breton.”

After the Tories formed government, Premier Tim Houston’s mandate letter to community services minster Karla MacFarlane instructed her to “(w)ork across Departments to establish a five-year target for the reduction of childhood poverty in the Province.”

But child poverty was not mentioned in the government’s throne speech, and it was not directly addressed in any of the government bills introduced during the legislature’s fall sitting.

(Image by Frantisek Krejci from Pixabay