I want you to picture 93,000 hungry children in your head. To do this most effectively, you’ll need to mentally construct a venue the size of BC Place Stadium, which isn’t actually big enough to house them all.
So once you’ve finished cramming kids shoulder-to-shoulder into that space until it reaches capacity, picture a meandering line of them — male and female, of all age and races — backed up across the city of Vancouver and down to Stanley Park.
Now that we’ve got the image of this child army firmly planted in your brain, I want you to consider this: that’s how many British Columbian kids are currently living below the poverty line.
And according to some, that’s a generous estimate.
Things tend to get abstract pretty fast when you start talking about something like “child poverty” or “economic inclusion,” both of which are addressed in the bill tabled last Thursday by Nelson-Creston MLA Michelle Mungall in the BC Legislature.
But what’s at the heart of this issue is exactly what I’ve described above: kids that don’t have enough to eat.
And what is our government doing about it, you ask? According to BC’s youth advocate Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, very, very little.
In a report released in October, Turpel-Lafond said that seven of nine recommendations put forward to the province to address child poverty have been “disregarded” in the last few years, despite the fact that BC has now had the worst poverty and child poverty rates in the country for over a decade.
She lambasted the government for putting the issue on the back-burner, and refusing to engage fully with the problem.
“We’re asking for a sensible policy and strategy,” she told them, before adding a stern teacher flourish: “If you don’t work on it, it doesn’t happen. You have to work on it, and work has been very dim and slow.”
Until recently, I didn’t know anything about this. But a few weeks ago I was invited to a child poverty roundtable by School District 8, along with representatives from the police, the municipal government and the education system. Together we were supposed to discuss what we know about child poverty in the area, how to spot it in a classroom and how to provide help to those who need it.
At one point we were all asked to consider some of the implications of child poverty, both on the child and the community. Some consequences that had never occurred to me were brought up. Teachers shared stories about shelling out money from their own pockets to feed their underprivileged kids, while others commented that laundry and hygiene can become a serious issue. And what about the kid who needs to type up his book report, but doesn’t have a computer at home?
The observation I found most disturbing, and yet was brought up repeatedly, was how needy kids are often bullied by their better-off peers.
You read that correctly. Not only does the child have to struggle through math class on an empty stomach, not only do they have to worry about whether their parents can afford school supplies, but on top of everything else they have to deal with other kids making fun of them for it.
And because of that, many kids are hesitant to ask for help.
“We’re all ready to help. We’re just waiting for them to ask,” one participant said. “But it seems like they don’t know how to.”
There’s a lot of things hungry children can’t do. It’s awfully hard to keep up at soccer practice when you’re dizzy from nausea, or to manuever your way through a math problem while all you can think about is the tender ache of your tummy. Have you ever tried to focus on your teacher’s lecture while your throat is parched, your head throbbing? But perhaps the most crucial thing hungry children can’t do is advocate for themselves at the government level. That’s something we need to do for them.
Mungall’s bill, which has been introduced and ignored before, comes on the heels of Saskatchewan’s introduction of anti-poverty legislation on October 22. The moment they put that into effect, BC became dead last in the race to fight child poverty. We now have the unique distinction of being the only province that has decided to sit on our hands.
When I talked to her a few days ago, Mungall told me the province’s situation is completely reversible. She quoted the late Nelson Mandela, who asserted that poverty was a man-made structure that can be “undone by people.”
“Addressing poverty is a non-partisan issue. The government needs to start putting a plan together,” she said. She’s urging Finance Minister Mike de Jong, Minister of Social Development Don McRae and Minister of Children and Family Development Stephanie Cadieux to finally get their act together and do something.
She’s not picky about it, either. She said if they decide to debate her bill, she’d be thrilled, but she’s also open to anyone else’s ideas, as long as there’s finally some movement on the issue.
“It was never acceptable to be the worst in Canada,” she said.
But again, let’s not allow this to become too abstract. This isn’t a race and it’s not about numbers or statistics. It’s about those 93,000 hungry children I mentioned earlier, the ones clogging Vancouver traffic inside your mind. I want you to scan the faces of those kids, taking a moment to notice their patched, hand-me-down clothing, and try to imagine the last time you didn’t know where your last meal was coming from. And then remind yourself that though this is an exercise, those children are quite real.
And so is their hunger.