The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deep flaws in our social policy. The most vulnerable among us have borne the brunt of the health, economic and social crisis. This includes Canadian children who have seen their situations worsen, in the face of an existing crisis of their well-being before the pandemic.
Canadians would be surprised to know how poorly our children are doing. UNICEF Canada’s recent report card found that, out of 38 rich countries, Canada ranks 30th overall for our kids’ well-being. We also receive failing grades for mental health and happiness (31st), and physical health and survival (30th).
The pandemic, obviously, has not helped. According to the report, Raising Canada 2020: Ringing the Alarm for Canada’s Children, by Children’s First Canada, 57% of respondents in the study said their mental health was worse than before the outbreak.
How did we get to this point? UNICEF points to a few factors, but a standout is insufficient investment in children and families. Canada spends 1.68% of GDP on families and children — the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average is 2.38%. Countries that spend more include Chile, Italy and New Zealand. We give less time for parental leave than most of our OECD counterparts (24th) and are middle of the pack in investing in early child education and care (19th).
The government will point to the Canada Child Benefit (CCB) as an example of investments, but this modest program is clearly not going far enough, as one out of five Canadian children continue to live in poverty.
This gives the strong message that children are a secondary concern of our democracy. We don’t spend enough on them because we are not sufficiently accountable to them or focused on their needs. We also face the risk that the slow progress from incrementalism may cause us to believe that the CCB and other future policies are failing and cause us to turn back rather than move forward full steam ahead.
Now is the time for greater investment and accountability.
Canada needs to take immediate action. The European Union (EU) plans to include a child guarantee in its next budget. According to Eurostat, one out of four children in the EU is at risk of poverty or social exclusion, a level that is viewed as unacceptably high for one of the wealthiest regions of the world. Their plan for a child guarantee will ensure that every child in Europe has access to free health care, free education, free childcare, adequate nutrition and decent housing.
Our government could pursue a similar guarantee to bring children and families up to a baseline of support for certain essential needs. Parliament also needs to take spending on children much more seriously. In the face of massive spending during the pandemic, little pause was taken to debate and consider how children would be impacted. The government must value the role of Parliament in the oversight of expenditures as a core tenet of our democracy.
Canada’s most sacred obligation is to its children, yet too many are being left behind. It is morally wrong and a failing strategy to forget that children are the future of our country.
It is time that we commit to giving our children the resources they need to thrive. It is time that Parliament holds the government accountable for its inaction on behalf of children, especially in its role to examine and monitor expenditures.
If upcoming economic policies do not reflect the pressing needs that our children and youth face, we will be complicit in their suffering. This moment demands nothing less than our full and complete commitment to the well-being of our children.
Senator Rosemary Moodie represents Ontario.
This article appeared in the October 14, 2020 edition of The Hill Times.