|Canadian Council on Social Development|
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Income and Child Well-being:
A new perspective on the poverty debate
by David P. Ross and Paul Roberts
PART 1: FAMILY INCOME AND CHILDREN'S DEVELOPMENT
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN CANADA, there is abundant and compelling evidence that a wide range of child outcomes and living conditions are affected by family income levels. Using data from two new longitudinal surveys - the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) and the National Population Health Survey (NPHS) - this report examines the links between family income and 27 variables that measure child outcomes and the living conditions in families and neighbourhoods. In each case, children living in families with lower incomes are found to be at a greater risk of experiencing negative outcomes and poor living conditions than those in higher-income families. It is also evident from these data that child outcomes and living conditions improve gradually as family incomes rise. There is no magic income cut-off point below which children fail to thrive, and above which they uniformly succeed.
Children's development is complex, and many environmental factors - including their family, their home and their community - influence the process. Children begin with their own basic genetic make-up, but along the way, environmental influences enhance or detract from their ability to optimize their potential. In this section of the report, the influences of family, housing and community are examined in relation to the risks of poor outcomes for children. Each is assessed in relation to family income levels. (Please note: This study focuses on two-parent families only, and it uses income ranges, not precise income levels. Please refer to the Technical Notes for further details.)
FamilyParticularly in early life, children need secure attachments to nurturing adults who can provide consistent, caring support and affection. Research emphasizes that family stability and close and supportive relationships provide the most important protection for children against poor developmental outcomes. As the child's primary social network, parents and other family members play a crucial role in teaching them how to develop and use effective coping strategies.
The following characteristics of families illustrate that, as incomes increase, environmental risks to children decrease. Several of the family environment factors examined here focus on the parents: how many of them are depressed, how many suffered stressful events in their own childhood, how many feel chronically stressed, and how many smoke. We also consider the correlation between income and other family-related factors such as how frequently the family moves and thus causes the child to change schools, the state of the family's housing, and the availability of computers in the home.
Family functioningTo assess how well families function, a score is determined by combining parents' answers to questions on the NLSCY about interactions among family members. These questions included:
- Do you avoid discussing sadness, fear or concerns with your children?
- Do family members get along?
- Are there lots of bad feelings in the family?
- Is drinking a source of tension in the family?
Research has shown that families that score well on such family functioning tests are most likely to nurture children who are able to get along well with others and succeed in school, and such families are least likely to produce children with mental health disorders and aggressive, anti-social behaviours.
Chart 1 shows that children in low-income families are twice as likely to be living in poorly functioning families as children in high-income families. The incidence of poor family functioning decreases steadily as family incomes rise from under $20,000 to $50,000. The incidence of poor family functioning then rises slightly and drops again as incomes exceed $60,000. (For the precise percentage values in all the charts, please see the Appendix.)
Parental depressionLiving with a parent who is depressed is extremely difficult. Research has shown that children whose parents are depressed are more likely to have problems relating to others, to have emotional and conduct disorders, and to have problems with substance abuse than children whose parents are not depressed. As illustrated in Chart 2, children in low-income families are over three times more likely to be living with a parent who exhibits frequent signs of depression than are children in high-income families.
Parents who experienced trauma during their childhoodA parent's ability to nurture their children and to earn a good living is affected by the type of childhood they themselves experienced. It is known, for example, that abusive parents were often victims of abuse during their own early years. Research has also shown that parents who were raised in families with multiple problems frequently have difficulty managing stress once they have their own children.
Chart 3 shows that low-income parents are twice as likely as those with high incomes to have experienced childhood traumas such as their parents' divorce, alcohol or drug abuse, physical abuse, or expulsion from the home for misbehaviour. Nearly 16 per cent of low-income parents experienced childhood trauma, compared to less than eight per cent of high-income parents. The result is that children in low-income families are at a greater risk than those in high-income families of growing up with parents who themselves suffered childhood trauma.
Chronic stressParents experiencing chronic stress are far more likely to be distracted, hostile and abusive towards their children than are parents who feel happy and in control of their lives. It has also been found that adolescents living with chronically stressed parents are more likely than other youth to have emotional and behavioural problems. The types of stressors reported by parents included: a family member with an alcohol or drug problem; a relative in very bad health; not having enough money to buy household essentials; and feeling that unrealistic expectations were being placed on their time and abilities. Chronic stress can also lead parents to feel depressed and anxious.
As Chart 4 shows, low-income parents are four times more likely to feel chronically stressed than parents with high incomes. The chart represents parents whose stress levels were among the highest 10 per cent reported by all parents. The results show that the proportion of parents with these high stress levels decreases sharply as family incomes rise from under $20,000 to $50,000. The proportion then levels off, and falls gradually again among the highest-income earners.
Exposure to adult smokers in the homeChildren who are exposed to environmental tobacco smoke have a greater likelihood of experiencing acute and chronic respiratory illnesses, including asthma, pneumonia and bronchitis. They are also at a greater risk of having impaired lung functioning and they are more than three times as likely to suffer chronic middle ear infections than other children.
Chart 5 shows that children in low-income households are almost twice as likely as children in high-income homes to live with smokers. Half of low-income households contain at least one adult who smokes regularly, while less than 30 per cent of high-income households have regular smokers.
Frequent school changesChildren who frequently change schools have lower math scores, more grade failures and higher levels of behavioural problems than children who stay in the same school for several years. The need to change schools frequently can be a symptom of other stressful family conditions such as a family break-up, parents losing or frequently changing jobs, and pressures to move in order to find more suitable or affordable housing. Children living with mothers who are single parents, poor, have low levels of education, or are in poor mental health are more likely than other children to change schools frequently.
Chart 6 tracks the proportion of children who have changed schools at least three times before they were 11 years of age. Almost one-third of children in low-income families have changed school this frequently, compared to slightly over 10 per cent of children in high-income families. The chart also shows that the likelihood of a child frequently changing schools drops significantly for families with income below $30,000, then rises to just under 25 per cent until the household income exceeds $50,000, after which it drops steadily as family incomes increase.
Living in substandard housingLiving in substandard housing can exacerbate the living conditions essential to good child development. For example, there are often problems with indoor air quality in substandard homes. Contaminants such as moulds, lead, and asbestos are found more frequently in poor housing. These substances place children at risk of acute and chronic respiratory problems. Old furnishings, especially carpets, may contain large concentrations of lead, pesticides and other toxic chemicals. Poor housing can also develop chronic cockroach infestations which carry potent allergens, and insecticides to treat the infestation may also be problematic. Substandard housing is frequently located in crowded inner cities, near major traffic arteries.
Children living in these areas risk higher exposure to benzene, a known carcinogen found in gasoline and automobile exhaust fumes. In addition to exacerbating children's physical health problems, substandard housing can also harm their emotional health and family functioning, provide distracting and uncomfortable conditions in which they must carry out their school assignments, and be unsuitable for their play and social activities.
Chart 7 shows that children in low-income families are more than twice as likely to live in substandard housing as children in high-income families. Nearly 35 per cent of children in low-income households live in substandard housing, compared to 15 per cent of children in high-income families.
Access to a home computerWith the burgeoning use of computer technology in everyday living, a child's familiarity with computers is becoming an essential skill. Even a decade ago, home computers were considered to be a luxury. Today, however, the proportion of Canadian homes with computers is growing rapidly, and people rely on them for communications, access to information, bookkeeping and writing, among other activities. Children who do not have access to a computer in their home are less likely to acquire the technological skills they will need when they enter the labour market.
Chart 8 shows that less than one-third of children in low-income families have a computer in their home, compared to more than two-thirds of children in high-income homes.
CommunityThe quality of life in neighbourhoods and the safety of the physical environment are critical to healthy child development. Within the community, children can interact with their peers and with adults who can help them develop trust, autonomy and initiative. Communities provide a context where shared values and expectations are developed, and they are host to networks of formal and informal services in health, education, social services, housing and recreation.
Neighbourhoods that offer child safety, social support and access to good facilities can contribute positively to children's readiness to learn as they enter school and to their achievements in school. Research has found that children who live in neighbourhoods that are unsafe or that lack services face greater risks of developing problem behaviours such as hyperactivity, aggression or withdrawal, regardless of the quality of their family life.
Three aspects of neighbourhood life are examined here: problem neighbourhoods, unsafe neighbourhoods, and unfriendly neighbourhoods.
Problem neighbourhoodsProblem neighbourhoods are defined in the NLSCY as those where negative activities occur, such as drug use and drug dealing, excessive public drinking, burglaries, unrest due to ethnic or religious differences, neighbourhoods where groups of young people cause trouble, and where garbage and broken glass litter the streets. These problems can directly affect a child's development if the child becomes involved in the destructive activities, or the child can be indirectly affected by being exposed to anti-social behaviour and vandalism.
The vast majority of families report living in non-problem neighbourhoods. However, as Chart 9 shows, more than one-quarter of children in low-income families live in neighbourhoods with at least one problem activity, compared to about one-tenth of children in high-income families.
Neighbourhood safetyIf parents consider their neighbourhoods to be unsafe, they are unlikely to allow their children to play on the street or in local parks. This restricts children's abilities to form friendships and to develop good social skills. Chart 10 shows that about 15 per cent of children in low-income families live in neighbourhoods which their parents consider to be somewhat unsafe, compared to only eight per cent or less of children in families with incomes of $50,000 or more.
The kinds of factors used to identify neighbourhood safety were whether or not parents felt it was safe to walk alone after dark and whether or not it was safe for children to play outside or in local parks and playgrounds during the day.
Friendly, helpful neighboursAnother measure of the quality of neighbourhood life is how friendly and helpful people act towards their neighbours. Children can learn positive social skills in supportive neighbourhoods. Conversely, they can learn negative behaviours in neighbourhoods where people do not look out for or help each other.
Again, the data show that children in low-income families are less likely to have friendly, helpful neighbours than children in families with higher incomes. Chart 11 shows that 25 per cent of children in low-income families lived in neighbourhoods where their parents expressed reservations about the helpfulness and friendliness of their neighbours, compared to slightly less than 10 per cent of children in high-income families.
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