I remember a time when governments of all stripes and at all levels understood that the role of the state was, among other things, to care for the neediest among us, primarily through the wise use of taxes spent on social programs.

We have now reached a point, thanks to the Harper brand of Thatcherism, where tax is a dirty word; thus, we have left the care of the hungry and the homeless to organized charities, and also to the churches.

Instead of making sure that people are able to earn enough to get by, we now lean on the banks — and here I mean the food, the clothing and the furniture banks.

One in five Ontario children still faces life in poverty, according to a new study.

This remains true despite a pledge in Ottawa, made exactly 25 years ago today, to eliminate child poverty by 2000 and the province’s promise in 2008 to reduce poverty by 25 per cent by 2013.

The national problem has not just lingered. It is worse than it was in 1989.

More than 1.3 million children across the country — 550,000 of them in Ontario — live this way, according to authors of the 2014 report card on child and family poverty.

The odds only get worse for single-parent homes with one child, where the rate of poverty is 44 per cent in Ontario. The numbers are also bleak for First Nations children living on reserves, those with disabilities and children of colour. According to one calculation, half of all Ontario children born to immigrant parents live in poverty.

Last fall when I visited Canada, I met a Toronto doctor named Gary Bloch who has developed a poverty tool for medical practitioners. The tool assesses what patients might need other than prescriptions for the newest drugs. Bloch’s idea was to zoom in on the social determinants of health – food, housing, transportation – all poverty markers linked to bad health and poor health outcomes.

The tool, a four-page brochure, notes that poverty accounts for 24 percent of a person’s years of life lost in Canada and offers three steps for doctors to address poverty. The first step is to screen every patient by asking them, “Do you ever have difficulty making ends meet at the end of the month?” The next two steps urge clinicians to factor poverty into clinical decisions like other risk factors and to ask questions about income support by age/family status, such as whether seniors have applied for supplemental income benefits they may be entitled to.

Toronto, the richest city in Canada, is also one of the poorest. Newly compiled figures tell us that fully 29 per cent of children in this city live in poverty.

The Hidden Epidemic: A Report on Child and Family Poverty in Toronto, released last week by the Alliance for a Poverty-Free Toronto, calls the figures “shameful.” Even worse, after dropping from 32 per cent a decade ago to 27 per cent in 2010, the numbers are rising again.

No one need be told this is shocking. The fact that 145,000 kids under the age of 18 come from poor families flies in the face of everything we like to believe about Toronto.

The recent Hunger Count by Food Banks Canada is now a week old, but with the way things are digressing it might very well be next year’s news, and that of the year after, and the year after.

This is one of the reasons why The Economist reversed its judgment of a decade ago and now labels us as, “Uncool Canada (The Moose Loses Its Shades).” Any nation, or its people, that continues to tolerate the proliferation of food banks in a world of financial abundance has clearly lost its appeal to the better angels of our nature. We’ve all known for some time now that democracy and economics seem to be veering off on different courses. The wealth that so easily flows around the globe isn’t settling on middle-class families and the fate of those on the financial margins now appears permanently precarious.

If poverty creates hunger, it teams up with the food system to create another form of malnourishment: obesity (and what’s called “hidden hunger,” a lack of micronutrients). If you define “hunger” as malnutrition, and you accept that overweight and obesity are forms of malnutrition as well, than almost half the world is malnourished.

The solution to malnourishment isn’t to produce more food. The solution is to eliminate poverty.

Let’s imagine you’re a prime minister with $4.6 billion to spend. Do you:

  • Eliminate child poverty? Or,
  • Give upper middle-class parents a 1 per cent increase in income?

Interesting choice. On the one hand, you have this longstanding pledge from the government of Canada — made way back in 1989 — to eliminate child poverty. On the other hand, you have a more recent pledge made by your party to deliver an income-tax cut to couples with children who have one high-earning spouse. Which promise do you choose to fulfill?

We know Stephen Harper’s answer. He delivered it last week, when he held an event to announce a series of tax measures and spending increases targeted squarely at parents.