Season 5, Episode 1 

After many years of progress, the child poverty rate in Canada has moved in the wrong direction. In fact, the poverty rate rose more sharply for children than for the general population. Canada is now a middle performer among rich countries for its rate of child poverty. 

Host: Saara Chaudry


Lisa Wolff, Director of Policy and Research, UNICEF Canada

Terence Hamilton, Policy Specialist, UNICEF Canada 

David, Teerka and Mihir, Youth Participants  

Producers: Sara Faruqi and Priyadarshini Mitra

Composed and mixed by: Chandra Bulucon



[00:00:01.37] After many years of progress, the child poverty rate in Canada has moved in the wrong direction. In fact, the poverty rate rose more sharply for children than for the general population. Canada is now a middle performer among rich countries for its rate of child poverty. So let's begin the new year on this note of self-reflection. Let's look at child poverty at home in Canada.

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[00:00:40.76] Hello, everyone, and welcome to a new season of the For Every Child Podcast. I'm your host and UNICEF Canada Ambassador, Saara Chaudry. UNICEF's report on child poverty in high-income countries was just released recently. And it revealed that Canada remains a middle performer on addressing this challenge with almost 1 million children still living in poverty in the country. Report Card 18 compares levels of child poverty in the wealthiest countries around the world, and Canada ranks 19 out of 39 high-income countries in this aspect.

[00:01:22.88] The report card looks at the progress these countries have made to end child poverty and how well their policies protect every child. Today with me is Lisa Wolf, UNICEF Canada's director of policy and research. Thanks for joining us, Lisa. So let's dive right in. What is UNICEF's report card, and why did we decide to do a report card on the well-being of children in high-income countries?

[00:01:50.23] UNICEF began releasing its report cards on the state of children and youth in rich countries more than 20 years ago, and we did this for two reasons. One, is because it was obvious that rich countries despite their ample national wealth were not meeting even the basic needs of all children. And secondly, because countries with similar levels of resources, levels of wealth should really be achieving similar outcomes for children and they weren't.

[00:02:21.66] So our report cards measure the gaps in well-being for children in rich countries and help explain why. And essentially, they show that countries have different results for children because they have different policies for children. Countries that invest more, have stronger policies for children get better outcomes.

[00:02:42.92] So what does this year's report card cover?

[00:02:46.03] The latest report card is report card 18 in the series that we've put out over the last 20 years. And I'm going to go back first to the very first report card in the year 2000. It focused on child poverty due to the extensive impacts of poverty across children's lives. And since then, different report cards have checked in on the progress of rich nations to eliminate child poverty.

[00:03:12.91] So here we are now in 2023 with report card 18, and we're revisiting how well rich countries are doing to bring down child poverty rates. So we're presenting the most current available data on child poverty across the world's 39 wealthiest countries and we're looking at trends over the past decade in child poverty following the Great Recession and through a global pandemic, as well as trends in policies that these countries have been implementing to protect children from poverty.

[00:03:48.56] I want to point out that during this period, something really interesting happened. Rich countries continue to accumulate wealth, so by different measures, GDP, GNI, their wealth grew. But a pattern started to diverge among rich countries when it comes to child poverty. What happened was despite decades of generally reducing child poverty across rich countries over the last decade, we saw that some countries kept this positive pattern, they continued to reduce child poverty but 13 countries had a rise in child poverty even though they were still accumulating wealth.

[00:04:31.92] So in 13 countries, child poverty rose in the past decade. And today, we're in a situation where we have a really wide range of child poverty rates. Some countries have achieved very low rates 10%, 1 in 10 children experiencing child poverty. Still not acceptable in a wealthy country but when you compare that to other countries that fall to the bottom of the UNICEF league tables ranking countries according to child poverty, the rates are as high as 30%. One in three children experiencing child poverty.

[00:05:09.12] And that means they live in a family whose income is less than 60% of their national median income. So the wide variance that we have today in child poverty rates is mainly because what rich countries spend on social protection on policies that help lift kids out of poverty varies. So the rates are varying because expenditure to protect children from poverty varies and it ranges from 2% of GDP to 16% of GDP.

[00:05:40.39] So that's why I come back to what I said at the beginning, you get the level of child poverty that you pay for in a rich country. And we have different policies so we have different outcomes when it comes to children.

[00:05:55.83] Given all this data we have what are some areas the top performing countries have in common when it comes to low levels of child poverty?

[00:06:05.79] The countries that are achieving the lowest levels of child poverty are as many people would expect, because you hear often in the news how well these countries do on different measures of well-being but they are the Nordic countries. So Denmark, Finland have lower rates than most countries. And they do invest more in social protection policies like child benefits, income benefits that go to families with children.

[00:06:35.01] They have strong investments in child care and in parental leave. What UNICEF calls the family friendly policy trifecta, the three fundamental policies that do the most to protect children from poverty and get them off to the best start in life at a stage of life when it really matters, the early years.

[00:06:54.67] So let's talk about Canada. How have we performed over the last few years?

[00:07:00.19] Well, Canada has been a rising star in the UNICEF league tables of child poverty looking back over the past decade in particular. The child poverty rate in Canada during that period fell by 23% and only 4 of the 39 rich countries that we measure in report card 18 made more substantial progress to reduce child poverty. And this generational decline in child poverty began in 2016 with the introduction of the Canada Child Benefit.

[00:07:32.01] And this is an income transfer that families with children receive that reached more than twice as many children as previous income policies and it lifted thousands of children out of the depths of poverty because it gave more money to families in low income.

[00:07:50.16] And then the progress to reduce child poverty was really accelerated in 2020 by the temporary pandemic income benefits particularly the Canada Emergency Response Benefit known as the CERB. So Canada's level of child poverty fell from 22% a decade ago to 15% by 2020.

[00:08:13.43] And then, Lisa, as you were telling me before in 2021 in Canada, after all these years of doing so well, we suddenly saw an increase in child poverty. Can you expand on that a little?

[00:08:25.53] In 2021, which is the most recent year that we have child poverty data available to the child poverty rate moved in the wrong direction. And for the first time in years, it increased and it went from 15% in 2020 to 18% in 2021. So today, more than 1 million children have been left in poverty and Canada's child poverty rate sits in the middle among 39 rich countries.

[00:08:56.02] Three countries have rates of child poverty at 10% or less compared to Canada's 17%. And that's the power of a UNICEF report card. It demonstrates what is actually possible to achieve in the wealthiest countries in the world when they have adequate income support policies to protect children from poverty and its scarring impacts.

[00:09:21.23] Can you break it down a bit more for audiences, what are the reasons for this increase from 15% to 18%?

[00:09:31.00] The rise in child poverty in Canada between 2020 and 2021 was really driven by three things. One, is that inflation happened. So the rising cost of living, rising cost of food in particular and housing costs, including as interest rates were hiked to duet with inflation. So that reduced the real income that families had to spend to buy food for kids and meet their needs.

[00:10:02.51] At the same time, the income benefits from the pandemic had basically faded so families weren't receiving the added income supports that were provided during the pandemic. And the Canada Child Benefit has never been enough to lift every child out of poverty or enough children to an adequate level of income.

[00:10:23.87] So when you combine those three things, inflation, the failing of special income benefits during the pandemic, and an existing Canada Child Benefit that made progress to reduce poverty but has stalled because it just doesn't provide enough income for the lowest families to lift kids out of poverty, we have a rise in child poverty.

[00:10:46.54] So based on this new information then, can you explain to us what child poverty looks like in 2023 in Canada and what work is there to be done moving ahead?

[00:10:58.31] Well, we hear from young people that poverty has a lot of damaging effects. And as much as parents try to protect their children from the impacts of poverty, parents will go without food to feed their children for instance. It creates a lot of stress and challenges within a family. They move from crisis to crisis trying to pay for rent or food or the things that their children need.

[00:11:28.75] And children do not do well when family is a stressful environment. And that's really where support policies need to step in and alleviate that situation and provide enough income so that we in a rich country are meeting at least the basic needs of children. Surely, every child should have nutritious food in this country.

[00:11:53.93] And so in Canada, we have a situation where because we don't have adequate support policies to lift every child out of poverty, we have high rates of food insecurity. One in four children is food insecure. That translates to 1.8 million children. We have 1/3 of children who are overweight and obese and that is an indicator of poor nutrition, a poor diet.

[00:12:23.24] Canada doesn't fare as well as other rich countries when we look at the rate of infant mortality or even under-five mortality. So we have a higher death rate even from birth because children are born into circumstances that are more difficult and all of the rates that I've been talking about are much higher if you're an Indigenous child, if you're a racialized child, a child with disabilities, you are more likely to be poor, more likely to lack enough nutritious food.

[00:12:52.67] And children in lone parent families have the highest rates of poverty at 44% in Canada. Almost half of children in lone parent families. That is not true in all countries. And so this is something that policies can change. And growing up in poverty is really damaging for children. Even a brief exposure at a young age to living in poverty can shadow a child for life.

[00:13:19.45] And as a wealthy country with one of the largest economies among the countries we compare in our report card, and one of the greatest increases in wealth over the past decade, surely, we can aim higher than a middle ranking for child poverty among our peer countries.

[00:13:36.66] And one last question, Lisa. Given everything that we have learned right now, what role does UNICEF have to play in a wealthy country like Canada, which still as we can see has child poverty and other gaps when it comes to meeting the needs of all children?

[00:13:54.24] Well, what this report is telling Canada is that we've had success, we've made progress with good policy tools like the Canada Child Benefit to bring down rates of child poverty. What it's telling us is that we can't check children off the policy to do list at this time. Their right to an adequate standard of living has not been met.

[00:14:18.28] So doing that should be our policy priority and all levels of government in Canada can use their wealth and their policy tools to eliminate child poverty. Leaving children in poverty is a choice. We have policy tools that work and we can lift every child out of poverty if we decide to do that. And in fact, parliament more than 20 years ago, decided that that was a goal that it would strive for. So it's time to do that.

[00:14:47.77] And there are things that governments can do, the federal government can eliminate child poverty with a low income supplement to the Canada Child Benefit and removing barriers that keep that benefit out of reach for some of the poorest children. That is the most immediate and direct way to reduce child poverty.

[00:15:07.95] The federal government could also guarantee every infant six months of adequately paid and protected time with a parent at birth. And so currently, we have 1/3 of infants who are excluded from parental leave because the parent, the mother, is not eligible for maternity leave or parental leave. That could change.

[00:15:32.58] The provincial and territorial governments have a role to play. They provide social assistance that is not adequate to lift families out of poverty and they need to index their rates of social assistance to inflation and consider a stronger role for a child benefit at the provincial level to complement the Canada Child Benefit and provide a livable income for families with children.

[00:15:57.51] In Canada as in other wealthy countries, UNICEF is an advocate for children and youth. So our countries have the wealth we have the capacity to fulfill the rights and needs of every child. The reason we don't is a lack essentially of political will. The will to make children our priority in our policies, in our budgets. And that's where advocacy comes in. Advocacy to ensure that children are the top of the policy to do list.

[00:16:28.62] And so UNICEF Canada's role is an advocate to governments to point out using good evidence, how children are truly doing, where the inequities lie, and where strong policy solutions. Learning sometimes from the successes in other countries will really make a difference for children.

[00:16:49.70] Thank you so much, Lisa. It seems despite the great progress we've made in Canada in the last decade to reduce child poverty, we still have some way to go. We have more work to do and we have many examples around the world that can help us progress. Now that we have a better understanding of the reasons behind the child poverty rates in Canada as well as the solutions to reducing it, let's move on to another set of experts.

[00:17:22.82] We are joined by three young people living in different parts of Canada who shared their experience and understanding of poverty in the country. Moderating this conversation is Terrance Hamilton, policy specialist at UNICEF Canada. Thanks, Terence, for joining us. Take it away.

[00:17:41.94] Hey, everybody. My name is Terence Hamilton. I am a policy specialist with UNICEF Canada, and I'm part of the team that's been working on the release of this new report card. We're very excited to be joined by some young people from across the country today who are going to chat with us about the findings

[00:17:57.89] Hi, everyone. My name is Mihir, and I'm currently from Edmonton Alberta and I'm a high school student.

[00:18:05.30] Hey, everyone. My name is Teerka, I'm currently located in the greater Toronto area and I'm 17.

[00:18:11.99] My name is David and I'm from British Columbia and I currently serve as youth advocate with UNICEF, but also a youth advisor to the UN Human Rights Office and I'm really excited to be here today.

[00:18:21.27] Thank you all so much for joining us. So you've all had a chance to take a look at this report card that's just been released and I guess the headline is that Canada has been doing pretty well on addressing child poverty relative to where we were maybe a decade or so ago.

[00:18:36.29] For the last 10 years, the child poverty rate has been going down mostly thanks to child-focused policies and investments on the part of the government. So in 2021, we actually saw child poverty increase from the previous year. David, what's your reaction to that stat?

[00:18:51.48] I think it's really concerning. And as we see across the country, that the cost of living has gone up significantly. And when that happens, oftentimes the burden is put on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, young people, seniors, et cetera. And I think it's really important to look at that and focus on ways where the government can apply support for these people who are slipping through the cracks because I think COVID-19 has created and visualized a lot of those cracks. But as if we don't patch those, those will only get worse and those will only deepen over the next couple of years.

[00:19:20.82] Certainly, inflation and the cost of living crisis, especially when it comes to things like housing and grocery prices, these are things that have been in the news a lot lately. Tierka, I'm wondering if that's something that you're paying attention to and if the peers in your social group are talking about these things.

[00:19:39.54] This comes at a time where due to the pandemic, students are also facing learning gaps and they're also facing heightened mental health. So on top of that, having this added stress of trying to figure out how they're going to pay their fees, trying to figure out when their next meal is going to be, it's really coming at a really bad time for youth.

[00:19:58.98] I wonder how we can provide more support to help them navigate this. I also think this is a time for youth where they want to be focusing on their education and having to worry about these additional things can cause an additional stress.

[00:20:15.39] With the COVID-19 pandemic, education has really changed and with all this education moving online and many resources, exam preparation, scholarship opportunities, everything is online these days. And with this digital divide, children in poverty often lack access to necessary digital devices and a conducive learning environment. That really hinders their ability to engage effectively and learn effectively in today's society.

[00:20:44.74] So in 2021, we saw poverty rates increase across the board but they actually increased more sharply for children under the age of 18 than the general population. David, I'm wondering if you have any insights on how living that experience of poverty might be different for people under the age of 18 than it would be for adults?

[00:21:04.17] So first of all, I think you're under 18 as well, it means that you're mostly dependent on your family. And if you're growing up in a situation of poverty, that sort of puts you off on like a challenging course. Because if you don't have the money to do some of the activities that help you in this such a crucial phase of your life, you end up having to miss out.

[00:21:23.28] If you don't have the money for example to partake in sports programs or in after school activities or to meet other young people, that has a big impact on not only your development but on your mental health as well. So it's really important for us to consider the impacts. And on top of that, there's also a social justice part of it too. There's Canadians, young Canadians of different backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, immigration backgrounds.

[00:21:45.72] And when you're young, having that money to socialize, having that money to educate and to move up on the social ladder is incredibly important. But when you don't have that, you end up losing a major part of it and that can contribute to challenges down the road. Whether that's with mental health or whether that's with career opportunities.

[00:22:01.72] One thing that I think is really cool about this report card is that it doesn't just look at child poverty from monetary terms. It actually looks at poverty from a multidimensional approach and it talks about some of the other experiences of poverty that many children in this country are experiencing.

[00:22:18.69] So poverty might not just be about not having enough money, it might be about not having a safe and warm place to live. It might be about not having food on the table. It might be about not being able to pursue the education that you want to pursue.

[00:22:32.92] So I know there's been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of affordable housing in Canada and as well as the issue of inadequate or overcrowded housing and is something that really affects young people. When you think about a child or a young person living somewhere that maybe needs major repairs or doesn't feel safe or maybe doesn't have enough space for everyone that's living there, how do you think that situation might affect that child or that young person's day-to-day life? Tierka, let's start with you.

[00:22:59.57] Constantly having to focus on making sure that your basic day-to-day needs are met, it can distract you or add an additional stress. I know for one, it can affect your education. It can also have a social impact. I think something in high school that I've realized is so important is having that feeling of being included having that social inclusion.

[00:23:20.00] And often times when you aren't able to bring your friends home or you aren't able to go out and eat out somewhere with your friends, it can really make you feel like you're different and really make you feel like this is a bad situation that you're in. And that can contribute to loss of confidence and all these psychological impacts that especially at a time when youth are preparing to graduate and thinking about their future, it can make them make choices that might not be the best for them.

[00:23:49.47] Another aspect of poverty that this report card looks like is food insecurity among children. Children actually have the highest rate of food insecurity among all age groups in Canada. And what that basically means is that they might not have access to enough food or enough healthy food to meet their basic needs.

[00:24:05.07] One of the recommendations that UNICEF Canada is suggesting to address this issue is to provide all school children with free healthy food at school every day. Mihir, what do you think about that as a possible solution?

[00:24:16.40] Most definitely, I really do agree. Canada is the only G7 country without a National Food Program. It is really important because it provides children with food security, improved learning, health benefits, social equity, and family financial relief. Families can put their money towards other things without having to worry what their child will eat for the day.

[00:24:38.87] Following up on that, Tierka, what do you think about this idea of a National School Food Program for Canada?

[00:24:44.52] I love the idea and I wanted to say at my school board and youth groups in my community, which I live in the greater Toronto area have been really advocating for a free lunch program. So I would love to see this happen. I have two main questions, which is, will this be something that could be sustained for a really long time?

[00:25:04.26] I noticed that my school, we had a free breakfast program but due to changes in funding, it often times gets taken away. And I think without having a constant supply after introducing a program can really cause another additional stress if youth were used to getting food at school and then suddenly the program goes out. So I think I also want to make sure that when this does come out, there is a plan to ensure that it's provided in the long-term.

[00:25:30.83] I also wonder how this can be supplied in like a dignified way or in a way where you feel comfortable. Because I know oftentimes at my school we have a free breakfast program. But sometimes youth are scared to take it if it's just targeted at a certain group or would youth have to give their financial information in order to access these free lunches or would it be just free for all, whoever needs it.

[00:25:56.34] And I think that second approach is really great of making it something that's really open access because anyone can take it and anyone feels-- doesn't feel any shame in that.

[00:26:06.90] I would really like to add on to Tierka's idea of sustainability, and how we can sustain such a program. A youth group I work with in rural Alberta, they have a school food program in their school however it is only every other Friday. And that really defeats the purpose. The point of school food program is to provide food for children to sustain themselves every day.

[00:26:32.51] And I think if the government really urges the implementation of such a program, schools will already be motivated to implement that. And I think we should really utilize the organizations such as that youth group or groups across the country that are already working towards this implementation and work with them. I think that will allow for an easier transition and will utilize the work that they have already done

[00:26:58.55] So the title to the Canadian companion of this report card is called Let's Finish This. The reason we chose that title is because Canada's been making progress on ending child poverty but there's still some work to do. We've been calling for better income supports, reform of programs like parental leave, and like we just talked about, a National School Food Program. And I want to hear from you all, what other kinds of supports or interventions do you think are needed to address child poverty in Canada and end it once and for all? Tierka?

[00:27:28.40] Ensuring that we're teaching the skills that will ensure that once students do graduate, they can enter the workforce, they have basic financial skills, they know how to sustain in themselves. Adding those preventative measures in schools are so important because children might not always have that at home.

[00:27:46.57] As well, I want to see more support for youth who are working. I have a lot of friends who are telling me that they have to work such long shifts and how in the workplace, they're not having support to ensure that they can manage all their other responsibilities. So having some protection for youth who unfortunately do have to work minimum wage jobs on top of school would be great.

[00:28:09.40] David, what else do you want to see done to end child poverty in Canada?

[00:28:13.04] I think the main thing is about youth representation and an equitable transition from childhood to adulthood that is poverty-free. The first point goes with amplifying youth voices. Now, I think that young people might be the only demographic that is not represented adequately in government. If you look at our House of Commons, all of them are pretty much not Gen-Z. All of them are further along their careers and it's important to recognize that young people have a lot to say regarding poverty, regarding the challenges that Canadians face.

[00:28:42.14] And if we don't share those opinions our decision makers cannot be proper advocates for us. So I hope that Canada can establish more youth councils, like the Prime Minister's Youth Council to directly advise on policies. I hope that schools will implement more policy making to ensure informed feedback. So for example, having youth trustees, have having people represented in administration, and actually having people hear about the challenges that young people face and to better adapt policies. Because you can't just make policies for a group of people that you don't listen to adequately.

[00:29:13.76] At the same time, I believe that there needs to be a good transition from childhood to adulthood as poverty-free. So that means tackling the challenge of affordable housing, for example. So prioritizing projects that might be aimed at young people, especially for those transitioning out of foster care or even facing homelessness.

[00:29:29.81] I think about education and job training. So many of young Canadians are graduating this year or graduating next year, and we have to ensure that every single young person that graduates has a path laid out for them that if they graduate, they can choose to either enter a post-secondary institution if they want or they can set up for training. Trades training, for example. And we want to provide different paths and avenues for successful careers for them.

[00:29:53.58] So if we're going to solve poverty among children and young people, we're going to have to include them in these discussions or we're going to have to hear from them directly about their experience. So I've spent a lot of time thinking about the issues covered in this report card but I've learned a lot from you all over the last 20 minutes, so I really want to say thank you all for taking the time to speak with us today.

[00:30:18.06] Thank you to all our guests for joining us today. As we learned, leaving children in poverty is a choice in wealthy countries. The right policies can impact the lives of children and lead to improving the lives of families in so many ways, particularly in racialized and marginalized communities.

[00:30:41.64] As one of the world's largest economies, Canada must do better than a middle ranking for child poverty rates. We hope Canada fares better and improves the lives of its children in the next UNICEF report card. Until next time, I'm Saara Chaudry. Thank you for listening.

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