December is a time for traditions. For many people, those include giving generously to charitable causes. Unfortunately, some charities seek to manipulate these instincts by making the world seem a grimmer place than it really is.
UNICEF, the United Nations charity with responsibility for children, maintained such a tradition this month with the release of its report The Children Left Behind, which examines the status of poor children in 24 wealthy nations. True to form, UNICEF delivered generally bad news for Canada.
“Rich countries, including Canada, letting poorest children fall behind,” is how UNICEF sold its report to the Canadian press. Apparently, we place a dismal 17th in terms of the material well-being of our less-fortunate children. According to Marv Bernstein, chief advisor of advocacy for UNICEF Canada, the only solution is greater taxation and more income redistribution.
It all sounds rather serious, until you read the report. Then the problem seems to go away.
As with all statistical arguments, understanding the UNICEF report requires a careful eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. The study examines the status of poor children within three categories: material well-being, health and education. It also focuses entirely on relative differences; that is, the gap between children in the middle of the income distribution and the average below that line. Exclusively relying on relative indicators is a highly contentious, and generally misleading, way to examine poverty. The UNICEF report is no exception.
While Canada did well in education and health, we scored very low in material well-being. Our performance in housing for the poor was particularly abysmal. A closer look is necessary.
UNICEF claims the number of rooms per person in a house is the best way to measure the adequacy of housing. OK. But it is only interested in how this affects the gap between average and low-income children.
Average families have an estimated 1.5 rooms per person in Canada, according to UNICEF. For poor families, this figure is 1.1 rooms per person. A gap of 0.4 rooms per person is the largest recorded among all nations. As a result we score 20th out of 24 in housing for the poor.
But do poor families really care about the number of rooms in other houses in other parts of town? Or do they simply care about how comfortable they are in their own place?
This is significant because Canada’s 1.1 rooms per person for poor children is the highest figure among any of the 24 nations studied in the UNICEF report. Iceland, the top scoring nation in this category, boasts only 0.91 rooms per person in poor households. Greece has just 0.69.
In fact Greece rates fourth highest on the list because it has such a small gap between average and poor housing. But average households in that country have only 0.8 rooms per person. In other words, poor families in Canada have better housing than average families in Greece. Still, Greece ranks much higher than we do. But where would you rather live if you were poor?
Putting Canada at the bottom of this list is clearly an absurd conclusion to draw from the data. If Canada’s poor are better housed than the poor in any other country in the world (and better housed than average families in some countries), we should be at the top of the heap and drawing unqualified praise from UNICEF.
More to the point, how would UNICEF propose that we solve Canada’s alleged housing crisis? If poor children in Canada already have the best housing anywhere, the only conceivable solution is to remove rooms from the houses of Canada’s wealthier families in order to shrink the gap. But this will do nothing to improve anyone’s material well-being.
This is not the first time UNICEF has twisted child poverty in Canada for seasonal effect. In November 2007 UNICEF Canada published a report with a chart showing child poverty in this country growing from 14.4% in 1989 to 17.7% in 2007 and declaring the situation a “persistent problem.” And yet every number presented was wrong: Some appeared to be drawn from thin air. All used before-tax calculations of income, which ignore the crucial impact of government transfers on poverty indicators. The real story was that after-tax low-income among Canadian children fell from 11.9% to 9.6% over this time. It’s still falling.
Child poverty remains a real issue for Canada, but tackling it requires coherent data and a commitment to taking the facts as they come. Whatever the season.