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Child poverty rate still too high in Richmond

Child poverty remains high in Richmond, but nobody knows why.

Child poverty remains high in Richmond, but nobody knows why.

While organizations struggle to develop services and programs, there has yet to be a comprehensive city-wide study looking into the causes of the high rate, according to Richmond Family Place executive director Kim Winchell and manager at Richmond Children First Helen Davidson.

"We're working on a study for early next year to show the face of poverty in Richmond," said Davidson. Many people don't understand, for example, that two parents can work full time and still struggle to make ends meet.

"Hopefully, it'll find some trends as to why, and how we can respond as a community," Davidson added.

This comes as First Call: BC Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition released its annual province-wide child poverty report card Wednesday morning. Poverty rose from 14.5 per cent in 2008 to 16.4 per cent in 2009, meaning approximately 137,000 children in the province live in poverty.

"This number is outrageously high," said First Call provincial coordinator, Adrienne Montani, comparing the figures to the national average of 12 per cent.

"It means we're not giving these families enough support."

Most of the children come from families where both parents work long hours at at least one full-time job, Montani said.

"I mean, what else can we ask them to do?"

Oddly, most child poverty rates decreased during the recession of 2008-2009 and spiked when the economy was booming in 2003 to 24.6 per cent, the report said.

For years now, Richmond has struggled with its high rates, often cited as one of, if not the highest in the province. According to the 2006 Census report, the rate of child poverty hit 31.4 per cent in 2005 - the highest in the province.

Comparatively, the lowest rate was the municipality of Central Saanich on Vancouver Island at 5.1 per cent.

But the absence of research into why the rate is so high leaves people to only speculate as to causes.

First Call's report card points to new immigrant families as one of the at-risk groups falling prey to child poverty. The organization's provincial co-chair, Cheryl Mixon, said this could be a cause for Richmond's high rate, considering its equally high population of new immigrants.

Many people make the same connection, according to Winchell. However, she also noted that she sees poverty in Canadian-born residents and not-so-recent immigrants as well.

Generally, Richmond is perceived as an affluent community with an affluent new immigrant population. As such, many people doubt the figures.

"People don't believe these numbers," said school trustee Donna Sargent, during the recent debate leading up to the election. "We have to convince people we're being factual."

"There's a huge divide between the haves and havenots," said Winchell, adding that because the problem is hidden within affluence and often disputed, it's difficult to move forward and work together as a community to solve it.

This invisibility may play a role in the high rate. Because many people are unaware of child poverty, few resources are put into eliminating it - you can't fix what you don't see. However, as the city's population has risen, so has child poverty.

"The city has developed with the idea of having mixed socio-economic neighbourhoods, which have proven to help in the development of kids," said Davidson. "That also causes poverty to be hidden and creates more of a challenge to see it."

"It's very difficult to be poor in a relatively wealthy place," added Mixon. "You're alone in your shame. It's a very different impact on children and youth when they see a Mercedes down the street or are surrounded by wealth. The shame is much greater."

Changing policies to lift people out of poverty often extend beyond the reach of the municipal level, and policies implemented by the federal or provincial governments affect municipalities, said Davidson.

First Call listed many factors that contribute to the province's current state of child poverty such as the minimum wage, welfare rates and the child benefit tax.

Also, needed is an affordable and adequate childcare system, as well as affordable housing.

"Child care is like paying a mortgage," said Montani.

"It's enormously expensive. And if we index the child benefit tax (which was recently capped), we can lift thousands of children out of poverty."

Other at-risk groups cited by First Call were Aboriginal children, children of single parents, visible minorities and children with disability.

"We're paying for this already in future costs such as health care and children who aren't prepared for the workforce," said Montani.

"We can either pay now or pay later."

"Children can't work or be productive when they're hungry, or depressed, or anxious, or distressed," added First Call's other provincial co-chair Julie Norton.

Norton said to improve the problem requires an attitude shift. Initiatives such as Premier Christy Clark's "Family First" agenda lacks action behind it, she added.

There needs to be a plan with clear targets and outcomes, and resources.

"We're not putting our money where our mouth is," said Norton. "Children should have first call to the nation's resources and we're so far from that. They're only young once and we're blowing it."