Fraser Forum

Clarifying the facts on child poverty in Canada

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Recent news stories suggest that the percentage of Canadian children living in poverty is on the rise and the child poverty rate is now 18.5 per cent. If true, this would certainly be a troubling state of affairs. In reality, however, child poverty in Canada is much rarer than the news stories suggest and has in fact been falling over the years.

The figures that allegedly show a high rate of child poverty come from a report published by Campaign 2000, a coalition of anti-poverty groups dedicated to the elimination of child poverty in Canada. While Campaign 2000’s goal is undoubtedly laudable, its report uses a misleading measure of “poverty” that obscures reality and does little to help determine who is most in need and how best to help them.

When most people think about poverty, they think about hunger, a lack of adequate shelter, or simply deprivation of basic necessities. The problem is that Campaign 2000’s report uses a measure—referred to as the Low Income Measure (LIM)—that does not actually determine if someone is living in poverty. Instead, it counts the number of people that live in households with income below half the median income (the median is the middle value of the income distribution). This captures relative differences in income—not whether someone is unable to attain basic necessities.  

Even if everyone in society can comfortably afford much more than the basic necessities, households can still have incomes below the LIM threshold simply by virtue of differences in income within society. At best, Campaign 2000 is crudely measuring inequality, not poverty. In fact, Statistics Canada explicitly states that LIM is not a measure of poverty.

So what’s the true extent of child poverty in Canada?

A more telling measure examines the ability of a household to afford basic needs such as food and housing. Nipissing University professor Chris Sarlo has developed such a measure, referred to as the basic needs poverty line (BNL)—the income level that allows a household to afford a nutritious diet, adequate housing, clothing, health care and a number of other basic goods and services required for long-term physical wellbeing. The advantage of the BNL is that it captures whether a household has adequate resources to escape deprivation. That is, it’s a proxy of absolute poverty.

According to Prof. Sarlo’s measure, 5.5 per cent of children were living in poor households in 2009 (latest year of published data)—a far cry from the nearly one-in-five children reported to be in poverty by Campaign 2000. In contrast to the claim that child poverty has gotten worse since 1989, the BNL shows that the child poverty rate has actually dropped by a third from 8.3 per cent in 1986 (data for 1989 is not available).

Tackling child poverty is obviously a crucial goal. No Canadian child should go without basic necessities. However, it’s unhelpful to overstate the extent of the problem and create a false impression that child poverty is rising. This just obscures efforts to identify those most in need and how best to help them.


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