UNICEF’s comparison of child poverty across industrialized countries shows that government action is a key driver to reduce child poverty. In countries that accept higher levels of child poverty, this is not just a function of chance or necessity, but of policy and priority.
The latest in UNICEF’s Report Card series, Measuring Child Poverty, compares child poverty across the world’s affluent nations. It finds that some industrialized countries are more successful than others in lifting children out of poverty, despite having similar economic performance, even in challenging economic times.
In a society committed to prioritizing children’s best interests, the child poverty rate would be lower than the overall poverty rate. Ten industrialized countries (about a third of the total) including Australia, Japan and Germany achieve lower rates of child poverty than in the population as a whole: Canada is not among them. Canada ranks 18th of 35 industrialized nations – a middle position - in the size of the gap between child poverty (14 percent) and population poverty (12 percent).
Children have the right to be the first to be protected from adverse economic conditions; this principle of “first call for children” holds for governments as well as for families. The lack of priority for children in government budgets shows up in higher rates of relative child poverty. In turn, it shows up in stunted individual potential, higher social costs, and dimmed economic prosperity for all.
Canada’s investments in child benefits have had a significant impact. Canada’s child poverty rate is 26 per cent before taxes and transfers. Only 6 of 35 countries had higher pre-tax poverty rates. After taxes and transfers, child poverty in Canada is cut by about half, to 14 percent.
UNICEF’s tenth Report Card suggests that Canada can do more to put children first:
- Canada’s rate of relative child poverty is 14 percent: 24th of 35 industrialized countries, at the “top of the bottom third.”
- Canada’s child poverty gap (the depth of child poverty) is 23rd of 35 industrialized nations, at the top of the bottom third.
- Canada’s tax and transfer policies are moderately effective in contrast to other affluent countries.
The Canada Companion to the report
What should Canada do?
- Make children a priority in budget allocations and give them first call on the nation’s resources.
Income transfers and tax benefits for children could be improved in a number of ways, given Canada’s level of spending relative to other affluent nations, such as by increasing the Child Tax Benefit to at least $5,000 and indexing it to inflation to lift thousands of children out of low income. The tax credit system should be reviewed, as the federal government has indicated it will do, to ensure these measures are efficient and fair.
- Make governance child-sensitive.
Canada needs to set an official definition of child poverty. A national definition should be paired with minimum measures that are common across all provinces and territories. Every jurisdiction, including the federal government, should have a strategy to eliminate child poverty with a target to reach the lowest level of child poverty in the industrialized world, at 5 percent. Thirteen industrialized countries achieve a rate of child poverty below 10 percent.