If we want to end poverty, we need to properly measure it

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Appeared in the Waterloo Region record, Guelph Mercury, North Bay Nugget and Hamilton Spectator

Every year around this time there’s a flurry of studies, reports and media stories about the state of poverty in Canada, especially child poverty. We are told that as many as one-seventh of Canada's kids live in poverty. And the accompanying descriptions of the predicament of those children paint a picture of hunger and of serious deprivation.

But is it true that roughly 15 per cent of children live in households that are too poor to afford the basic needs? Is it the case that these children are wasting away and have to read or write or think on an empty stomach as Ed Broadbent famously stated in his November 24, 1989 House of Commons speech on child poverty?

Fortunately, it is not the case. The measure used to find that 15 per cent of our children are poor is a relative measure. A relative measure can only tell us how many households are less well off than average and does not purport to reveal anything about hunger or other kinds of real deprivation. Relative measures can arguably speak to the condition of low-income but not poverty. Statistics Canada has been consistently clear on this distinction even though it appears to be lost on most users of low-income measures.

When we measure actual poverty, defined as a predicament of real deprivation (sometimes referred to as absolute poverty), we find that about five per cent of Canada's children live in households with reported incomes that are insufficient to cover all of the basic needs. Children in these households are at risk of being hungry, ill-housed and deprived of other necessities. While this can be viewed as good news when compared to the alarming (but misleading) statistics using relative measures, it is tragic that we have five per cent of our children in this apparent state of real deprivation. This is not acceptable.

Let's be clear. Living in poverty is not about being deprived of an iPad, the coolest Nike sneakers or dinners out at restaurants. It is about not having enough food to eat and perhaps having to go to a soup kitchen or food bank. When you are poor, you often cannot afford to replace worn out clothing or personal hygiene needs. When you are poor, you are likely to live in inadequate and often unsafe accommodation. Being poor is unhealthy. There is a heightened sense of urgency and desperation about living in poverty that is simply not the case with those above the poverty line. If we include, as poor, those whose deprivation is merely relative in kind, we risk trivializing the predicament of the poor.

In 1995, the United Nations sponsored a world summit on social development in Copenhagen. That summit, which focused attention on poverty in both developed and developing nations, ended with a declaration which committed signatory nations to both measure and eradicate absolute poverty. Canada and all of the other developed nations signed on to that declaration.

Regrettably, there has been virtually no follow-up relating to the commitments made at Copenhagen. As far as I am aware, there has been no action taken by successive governments. And the media seems to have buried this.

If it was a good idea in 1995 to measure and strive to eliminate absolute poverty, what changed to make it a bad idea? If absolute poverty relates to hunger, inadequate housing, and serious deprivation, why would those most closely associated with poverty (politicians, reporters, academics, and, especially, social activists) not want to measure the true incidence of this problem? And why would they not want to eliminate it? Looked at from the perspective of poor people, it seems scandalous that these commitments remain both unfulfilled and hidden.

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