Well, the past week wasn’t exactly a stellar one for Premier Christy Clark’s “Families First” agenda.
I’ve long thought the slogan itself was a risky one, given that families rely on government services to varying degrees and it’s pretty well impossible for any government to meet the demand at every turn.
So a government, particularly one that doesn’t have a lot of elbow room when it comes to spending, is always vulnerable to charges it’s being unfairly hard on things like, well, families. And the events of the past week show just how true that can be.
Just a few days after cutting back B.C. Ferry services for ferry-dependent communities (and the families who live in them), her government unveiled increases in BC Hydro rates that, over the next five years, will cost the average family an additional $300 or so in electricity bills.
On the same day as the hydro announcement, a report was released by an advocacy group that mapped out the depths of poverty in B.C. It concluded B.C. ranked last in the country when it came to child poverty rates.
A day later, Finance Minister Mike de Jong presented an update on the government’s fiscal situation that, while far from bleak, nevertheless showed the chances of the government spending more money on services to help families (or to address child poverty) were slim and none.
His quarterly financial report also showed Clark’s much-emphasized job creation program has gone nowhere. Employment growth has been nearly flat for the first 10 months of this year and there has even been a net loss of 2,600 jobs.
Still, it was the report on child poverty that provided the sharpest and bleakest contrast to what is supposed to be a “families first” approach from government.
To be sure, reports by advocacy groups have to be viewed somewhat warily, as they tend to support whatever particular goal the group is trying to achieve. And things can be interpreted subjectively in order to advance their argument.
And measuring poverty is an inexact science, as statistics can sometimes prove to be misleading.
Nevertheless, the report by First Call: the B.C. Child and Youth Advocacy Coalition is fairly disturbing. Using Statistics Canada data (not always the most accurate way to measure everything) it concluded almost one-fifth (18 per cent) of children in B.C. live below the poverty line (where that line sits, admittedly, is the subject of some debate itself).
That works out to about 153,000 children living in poverty, an increase of 34,000 in just one year. Alarmingly, the poverty in single-mother homes more than doubled, from 21.5 per cent in 2010 to a staggering 49.8 per cent in 2011.
Grim findings such as these call out for some kind of action by the provincial government, but there is not much evidence that is happening. Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux has insisted her government’s approach to solving the poverty problem is to grow the economy and create jobs, but not much progress is being made on either of those fronts.
And until the economy picks up significantly (and no one seems to be predicting that will happen anytime soon), average families will feel the pain of government cutbacks and rate increases, no matter how inevitable such moves may be.
Until the B.C. government finds a magic pot of gold, its number-one goal of balancing the budget each year necessitates making moves that will hurt families, especially those at the lower end of the income scale.
That advocacy group on poverty suggests, among other things, adopting a $10-a-day childcare plan and increasing welfare rates. Neither of those things is going to happen, as a cashstrapped government tries to wrestle a budget deficit to the ground.
Perhaps it is time for the premier to find a new slogan to wrap her government’s stated agenda around, because “families first” just isn’t working and won’t until the economy gets out of its sluggish, neutral state.
Clark and her government have gone all-in on the quest to establish an LNG industry, which could pay off handsomely for the province. But that payoff, if it does occur, won’t come for several years yet.
In the meantime, things will continue to be lean for families who can least afford it.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca
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