Ms. Diane St-Jacques (Shefford, PC)
That, in the opinion of this House, the government should review the level at which the child benefit is indexed.
Mr. Speaker, in September, I moved a motion asking the government to review the level at which the child benefit is indexed.
I am now debating this motion as the spokesperson for the Progressive Conservative Party. I thank the members of the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs for recognizing the importance of this issue, which is to help reduce child poverty.
First, let me explain the reasons that led me to table this motion. We are all proud to be Canadians. As we know, to be a Canadian is to be part of a society which is blessed with a quality of life, which is based on fairness, and which enjoys sound economic development. We rely on a Canadian way of doing things that promotes economic development and social justice. We are recognized all over the world as the defenders of tolerance and fairness. However, there is a fly in the ointment. Among all industrialized countries, we come in second place in terms of the number of children living in poverty, right behind the United States.
According to Campaign 2000, the changes that have occurred since 1989, when the government pledged to eliminate child poverty, look like this: the number of children living in poverty has increased by 46%; the number of two-parent families living in poverty has increased by 39%; the number of single parent families has increased by 58%; the number of children living in families where unemployment is chronic has increased by 44%; the number of children living in families on welfare has increased by 6% and, finally, the number of children living in unaffordable housing has increased by 60%. These figures speak volumes. The problem is serious. Today, almost 1.5 million children live in poverty.
I urge all hon. members to join the fight against this lack of equity. At the first ministers conference in June 1996, child poverty was put on the national agenda as a priority. Almost all premiers in Canada have asked their ministers responsible for social services to co-operate with the federal government on a new integrated child benefit.
The Minister of Human Resources Development recently announced this new benefit, and I congratulate him and his government on this initiative. A decision has been made to review the benefit and the respective roles of the federal, provincial and territorial governments in child assistance. The federal government intends to transfer to provincial and territorial governments the responsibility for helping low income working families. This function was filled by the earned income supplement, a program that will be integrated with the child tax benefit.
All low income families in Canada will receive this new combined benefit, whether the parents work or not. Provincial governments will no longer have to pay extra benefits to families on welfare for the dentist, the optometrist and many other services.
As I mentioned, the bill has not yet been announced. We all know it will come into force next July, but nobody really knows what is in it. It should define the role of the provinces. How much are they going to spend to alleviate child poverty, and how are they going to spend it? This undisclosed agreement is already called the reinvestment framework. Why is it called that? Because the federal government promised that the provinces would reinvest as much as the federal government, on a proportional basis of course, that is, the $6 billion invested by the government and maybe the additional $850 million it promised to invest in the next mandate.
The federal government will hand bigger and more equitable cheques to all low income Canadian families. It has defined its own role more clearly, and we look forward to the reinvestment framework that will define the role of the provinces and territories.
Let us just say that this reinvestment framework will be, I hope, of a comprehensive nature because no support measure can in itself solve the problem of poverty. This is a vast problem that has to be addressed from a comprehensive point of view. Children are poor because their parents are poor.
Let us look at the report entitled “Improving Social Security in Canada”. It shows how the Canadian family and its needs are changing. It says, quite rightly, that most social programs were created in the 1950s and 1960s, when the typical family included three children and two parents: a father at work and a mother at home. Today, the average family has less than two children, and both parents work.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen a steady increase in the number of double income couples, the number of working mothers with young children and the number of single parent families. Young parents are more educated, but they have unstable jobs, often part time, and without fringe benefits in most cases.
In 1990, the proportion of couples with school age children and with both parents working was 70%, compared to 30% in 1950.
To have a decent standard of living today, families need a double income. The family is changing, and support measures must change too. Many changes are needed. We need quality child care. We need to make support for the care of handicapped children more accessible. Child care services must be flexible to fit work schedules and work locations.
We have just seen how the social fabric of the family is changing, but everything else around the family is changing too. We must also look at community action programs for children. We must develop general approaches to problems related to children, prioritize new approaches and consolidate the ones that already exist, such as the community action program for children.
With the breakdown of the social fabric and the solitude felt by many people who live as shut ins in their apartments, not knowing their neighbours, we must rely on community organizations to renew the ties that have been lost and to rebuild our social fabric. We must help them, and this help is also part of a comprehensive vision.
There are also prenatal nutrition programs, or assistance to native communities, who are living in worrisome conditions, to say the least. As well, there are parental and maternity benefits. As I told you, the problem is extensive and must be examined in a comprehensive manner, which includes asking ourselves whether we really have achieved equality between the sexes because a legal framework exists, or whether the reality of the matter is something else again. Let us not forget that, of the 15.7% of children living with a single parent, that parent is their mother in 92.8% of cases, and that the vast majority of them, approximately 70%, live in poverty.
The longitudinal survey on children and youth revealed that one child in four is poor in Canada, that the economic disparity between them differs widely from one region of the country to another, that in Newfoundland one child in three lives under these conditions as opposed to one in four or five elsewhere in the country. It is a sorry state of affairs.
How can these children do well in school? How many of them arrive hungry, with no lunch or snack, having left chilly living quarters in clothes as thin as their parents' wallets? How many? One and a half million, one child in four. Under such conditions, neither you nor I nor any of my colleagues would do well.
Finally, we come back to the improved and expanded federal benefit. This benefit will mean that many families will have more money to help them make ends meet, and for many of them the benefit will play a vital role. But even the most generous benefit would not stamp out child poverty, because even in its improved form the benefit will still feel the effects of inflation next year.
I will, if I may, quote the Minister of Human Resources Development, who said recently at a dinner with members of the Laval chamber of commerce that by “putting our fiscal house in order, Canada has regained some leeway and the ability to make choices, important choices for society. And governing is about making choices”.
Later in his speech he said also “There cannot be any real and strong economic union without having also a collaborative and dynamic social union to support it. The national child benefit is the latest example of this dynamic relationship between our social values and the concrete initiatives that are taken. One thing is certain: children who are cold and hungry when they arrive at school are in no condition to learn. This is unfair. In Canada, this makes no sense. Children are our future, the future of our society and the future of our economic development”. And what he says is true.
The mechanism for the benefit is simple: the government will increase the revenue of low income families. As for the provinces, since they will have to pay less for social assistance, they will be able to invest again in programs and services. This is what the minister pointed out when he said “Each province will benefit from greater flexibility. Quebec's flexibility, for example, will increase by $150 million a year”.
But I would also like to point out that the people also need flexibility. Just imagine, if the benefit were indexed to the cost of living, the cost would increase by $170 million a year. That is $170 million the government saves each year, but it is also $170 million less for the underprivileged every year. That is because there is no protection for the child benefit. That is because the benefit is only partially indexed.
Let me explain. The amount of the benefit is adjusted every year, but only if inflation is above 3%. Because inflation has remained under that level for a number of years now, and following the upswing in the Canadian economy, there has never been any increase or adjustment to their benefits.
Children are dependent on what governments decide. If we are giving them something today, it is because we gave them nothing before. We are only catching up. They have to be allowed to keep up with the cost of living. Canadian families are suffering from declining purchasing power, and the underprivileged have trouble meeting their family obligations.
The child benefit could be an important safeguard against the devastating effects of child poverty, but the value of the benefit has constantly declined over the last decade, because it is only partially indexed to inflation.
The federal government spent $4.1 billion dollars in child benefits in 1984, and $5.1 billion in 1994. This represents a 25% increase compared to an increase of some 46% in the cost of living. If the 1984 benefits had really been indexed to inflation, they would have risen to $6 billion in 1994.
We understand that some decisions, such as setting a limit for indexation, were based a a certain context. When this was adopted in 1985 by the Conservative government of the day, the country was emerging from the economic crisis of 1982, and needed to tighten up its administration.
We were heading toward a financial dead end. This was what the right decision had to be. But, as the Minister of Human Resources has said, public finances have been put on a sounder footing. Now we have to make societal choices. To govern is to make choices, as the minister has said, but it is also knowing how to adapt.
According to the Canadian council on social development, if we add up all the 1% and 2% increases in inflation over recent years, the loss for Canadian families represents 13% of total benefits. This now ought to be addressed.
Inflation raises the nominal value of family income. Far more families are moving over the income limit every year by receiving the child benefit, even if the real value of their income has not increased. The cumulative impact is a reduction in the child benefit of some $150 to $170 million yearly. As a consequence, an additional investment in the benefit system merely replaces what has been lost in recent years.
There is a way of counteracting this effect of inflation, and it is to agree to examine the level of indexation, which is why I rise to defend this motion today.
In 1996, the government recognized that the same situation for our seniors' benefits needed remedying. I am therefore asking that we do as much for our children.
I would like to conclude by reminding the House that we must tell our children that they are important to us. We must remind them that the intention in 1989 of eliminating child poverty by the year 2000 still stands. We must not forget, hon. members of Parliament, that we must be fair in the choices we make in society. We must not forget that it is the children living in poverty today who will be turning the wheels of the economy tomorrow. We must not forget to be fair in the way we consider the future.
Now that Canada's economy seems to be back on track, we must remember that we can now look ahead and put social justice in this country back in balance. To this end, we must present all of our children and their families with an honest and a realistic schedule for resolving the problem of child poverty.
We must remind federal, provincial and territorial authorities that, if they do not work together in carrying out their responsibilities and their duties toward those who are most disadvantaged, we will not resolve the problem.
I am not really trying to move them along, but for a number of years we have produced endless reports and studies and I think it is high time to show the million and a half children living in poverty that their country is trying to find ways to improve their situation. Let us give them the means we consider necessary to resolve their situation, and later on they will come to recognize our good intentions.
Let us try to give our children a healthy space to develop. A balance between federal, provincial and territorial governments and getting things in hand in the community will lead to the establishment of effective structures that will put an end to the devastating effect of poverty on children.
I call on the members of this House, therefore, in order to eliminate the negative effect of inflation, to review the level at which the child benefit is indexed, as they did with seniors' benefits. Let us reclaim Canada's title of champion of social justice.
Topic: Private Members' Business
Subtopic: Child Benefit