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N.S. virtual learning decision underscores ongoing childhood poverty issues

Click to play video: 'Child poverty rates underpin Nova Scotia school decision'
Child poverty rates underpin Nova Scotia school decision
As the province’s top doctor and premier announced a last-minute change to virtual learning to start the year, they also acknowledged how crucial in-person learning can be. For many children, school can be a safe space, providing access to basic needs like food and warmth. But community groups and policy advocates say leaders need to do more than just acknowledge these issues. Alexa MacLean has more – Jan 6, 2022

Nova Scotia’s premier has frequently raised the harmful impacts keeping school doors closed, even for the interim, has on thousands of families across the province living in poverty.

“The brutal reality in this province is that for some kids, school is the place where they are safest, they’re safest at school. It’s sad but it’s true,” Premier Tim Houston said during the Jan. 5 provincial briefing.

“And, the reality for many children in this province, particularly as we move into the depths of winter, is that school is the place where they are most warm.”

A report published in November 2021 by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives states that Nova Scotia’s childhood poverty rates have decreased by less than one per cent over the past 30 years.

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The report states that in 1989, the rate was 24.4 per cent and since then the province has reduced childhood poverty by 0.1 percentage point, despite a pledge to eradicate it by 2000.

“We still have thousands and thousands of children living in poverty in our province and largely that’s on the shoulders of our provincial government,” said Christine Saulnier, a policy researcher and co-author of the report.

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Front-line community support organizations, like the YWCA Halifax, have dealt first-hand with the disproportionate impacts school closures can have, particularly on single mothers and caregivers.

“There was a hugely disproportionate impact on women who are unable to work from home, who we know are very concentrated in caring sectors — child care, elder care, nursing,” YWCA Halifax executive director Miia Suokonautio said.

“Women in clerical jobs, women in cleaning jobs, and women in cashiering — those types of service industries.”

Click to play video: 'Child poverty rates go down in every province except Nova Scotia'
Child poverty rates go down in every province except Nova Scotia

The provincial government will relaunch a temporary paid sick leave program beginning Jan. 10 for Nova Scotians who are unable to work remotely.

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The program is retroactive until Dec. 20, 2021 and will cover up to four paid sick days for workers, up to a maximum of $640 per employee throughout the 15-week period that it runs.

Suokonautio feels the public health response to schools closures in an effort to curb COVID-19 spread highlights the need for those decision-making processes to include other socio-economic impacts and supports.

“One of the things that I’m really interested in is how do we understand schools and child care in the larger policy context? So, if you’re closing schools does that come with wage offsets, does that come with reintroducing the moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent?” she said.

Shortly after taking provincial leadership in August 2021, one of the mandates Houston gave to Community Services Minister Karla MacFarlane was “to work across Departments to establish a five-year target for the reduction of childhood poverty in the Province.”

Saulnier says she’s encouraged by that commitment but says any sustainable changes to childhood poverty rates need to start with wages.

“It’s understanding that those who are facing the most stress in their lives are those who are working poor, those who are working at some minimum wage, who really don’t have the benefits, who can’t take the leave,” she said.

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