Child Poverty

Hon. Jim Munson: Honourable senators, Canada has a failing grade, and this question to the Leader of the Government in the Senate deals with child poverty. Just recently the United Nations children’s fund, UNICEF, released a report stating that with a rate of 13.3 per cent we sit twenty-fourth out of 35 developed countries with regard to children in poverty.

It notes that we fare better than our neighbours to the south, but we rank behind the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and most of northern Europe. Disappointingly, our child poverty rate is almost two full percentage points higher than Canada’s overall poverty rate of 11.4 per cent. I think we can do better than that. Take our support of senior citizens, for example. The federal government invests upwards of $40 billion in benefits for seniors but only a third of that amount, $13.2 billion, in our children. It seems that we sometimes forget the old cliché that children are the future, but the report states that because children have only one opportunity to develop normally in mind and body, the commitment to protection from poverty must be upheld in good times and in bad. I could not agree more.

Does the leader agree with this?

Hon. Marjory LeBreton (Leader of the Government): I thank the honourable senator for the question. I am aware of the UNICEF report. I am also aware that Canada does significantly better than many countries in the world. As we have all acknowledged many times, we do in Canada have unique circumstances with regard to child poverty. We have unique circumstances with regard to families living in rural and remote areas. We as a government have taken many steps to alleviate the burden on Canadian families, and I will put them on the record.

We increased the amount that families in the two lowest personal income tax brackets can earn before paying taxes. We have removed the tax burden on low-income Canadians, due to this action. A typical family now has $3,000 more in its pockets instead of in the files at Canada Revenue Agency.

We enhanced the National Child Benefit and Child Tax Benefit. We brought in the Universal Child Care Benefit, $100 a month per child to children under six, helping 2 million children. Budget 2010 allowed single-parent families to keep more of this benefit after tax. The child tax credit is available for every child under 18, which provides more money to over 3 million children and removes 180,000 low-income families from paying income tax.

The Working Income Tax Benefit, better known at WITB, helps low-income Canadians over the welfare wall. When WITB was created in Budget 2007, it helped 900,000 Canadians in the first year.

Of course, I hasten to point out to honourable senators that, unfortunately, all of these measures that we have brought in to alleviate child and family poverty were voted against by the opposition in the other place.

Senator Munson: We are still twenty-fourth out of 35 developed countries. I know that the leader is reading from the statistics presented before her. I used to do that in my job way back when for our side. I understand that she has to enunciate a litany of things that the government has done, but surely to goodness she can accept the fact that this government can do better.

Among the specific recommendations from UNICEF was an increase in the Child Tax Benefit to at least $5,000 per year from its current level of about $3,500, and index that amount to inflation. From my perspective, this would have a substantial and immediate impact on Canada’s child poverty rate.

Is this a measure the leader’s government will consider? If not, what action can we expect to improve the well-being of Canada’s children, aside from the work that the leader spoke about moments ago?

Senator LeBreton: Honourable senators, as I pointed out, there are areas in this country where there are some unique circumstances, but I also think that it is obvious that anyone who is involved in government, in elected politics or in politics as we are would seek to do everything they can to alleviate the problem of child poverty. I know members of my own party and my national caucus are regularly meeting with these groups and seeking ways to improve their lot in life.

As honourable senators would understand, we just received the UNICEF report a few days ago. I did notice the recommendation to increase the tax credit. It would have been nice to give us credit for setting it up in the first place, but I am sure officials in the government, the Minister of Health particularly and the Minister of Human Resources and Skills Development, are looking at these recommendations very seriously.

Senator Munson: Does the leader think that we can do better?

Senator LeBreton: Obviously, in a host of areas, all of us can. Not only on the issue of child poverty but also probably on a lot of issues we can strive to do better, and I think it is in the interest of all Canadians that all of us strive to do better, whether on issues of poverty or health. We are striving to do better, as honourable senators know, on the issue of mental health. I would support any effort to strive to do better, and I am sure we are all the same, honourable senators.