|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
1. Both surveys are conducted by Statistics Canada. The NLSCY is sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, and the NPHS is sponsored by Health Canada. Data from these surveys became available for analysis in 1995.
2. The Canadian Council on Social Development has been using these surveys since 1996 as the basis for its comprehensive annual report on child well-being called The Progress of Canada's Children.
3. The most vocal proponent of a much lower measure of poverty than the commonly accepted Statistics Canada low income cut-off is Christopher Sarlo of the Fraser Institute, whose writing has appeared in many Canadian newspapers over the past three years. The most vocal proponents of using the LICO or an even higher measure of poverty are the CCSD, the Campaign 2000 coalition, and the National Anti-Poverty Organization.
4. Does statistical correlation imply causation? The constant struggle over the meaning and value of statistical interpretations arises in every statistical analysis that links one factor with another. We do not uncritically accept that the statistical linkages with income demonstrated below necessarily imply causation and we also reject hypercritical responses which suggest that statistical linkages mean nothing. Two variables moving together in a constant pattern do not necessarily prove that one is causing the movement in the other. It may simply be a rare coincidence, or that one variable is co-related with another, unmeasured variable that provides the real causal link. For example, many factors are co-related with income, such as education level, family type, region, occupation, and so on. These and other variables interact to create poor developmental opportunities and poor outcomes. Whatever the leading cause of poor developmental outcomes - if ever one could be isolated - income is a reliable marker for some of the higher-risk trouble spots in the child development landscape.
5. The National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), developed by Statistics Canada and Human Resources Development Canada, collects information on approximately 23,700 children (from newborns to 11 years of age). Since 1994, the NLSCY has surveyed these children every two years and will continue to do so until they reach adulthood. In the first cycle of the survey, the child's primary caregiver and teacher were asked to provide information, as were children themselves aged 10 and 11. The NLSCY includes a broad range of family, household, and community characteristics that affect child development. The National Population Health Survey (NPHS), conducted by Statistics Canada, collects information related to the health of the Canadian population. A cross-section of information is obtained by surveying all members of the survey households (58,000 individuals). To collect longitudinal information, one respondent per household, aged 12 years or older, is surveyed (18,000 individuals). Data are collected every two years, starting in 1994.
6. Paul Steinhauer, "Developing resiliency in children from disadvantaged populations," in Determinants of Health: Children and Youth (Ottawa: National Forum on Health, 1998, pp. 47-102); Clyde Hertzman and M. Wiens, "Child development and long-term outcomes: A population health perspective and summary of successful interventions," in Social Science and Medicine, 1996, 43(7), pp. 1083-1095; and National Crime Prevention Council of Canada, The Determinants of Health and Children (Ottawa: NCPC, 1996).
7. S. B. Campbell, "Behaviour problems in preschool children: A review of recent research," in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 1995, 36: pp.113-149; P. Jaffe, D. Wolfe, S. Wilson and L. Zak, "Similarities in behavioural and social maladjustment among child victims and witnesses to family violence," in American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 1986, 56: pp. 142-146; Dan Offord et al, "Ontario Child Health Study," in Archives of General Psychiatry, 1987, 44: pp. 832-836.
8. G. Browne et al, "Resilience and vulnerability in mothers: Prevalence, correlates and expenditures," in Working Paper 95-2, System-Linked Research Unit, Health and Social Services Utilization, McMaster University, 1995; Government of Ontario, Premier's Council on Health, Well-Being and Social Justice, Ontario Health Survey: Mental Health Supplement (Toronto: Premier's Council, 1994).
9. The NLSCY provides information on the mental health of the parent who is responsible for answering the survey, which in over 90 per cent of the cases is the child's mother. No information is collected on the mental health of other family adults. Scores for parental depression were derived by combining the responses to 12 questions regarding the frequency of such occurrences as poor appetite, inability to shake the blues, lack of concentration, restless sleep, hopelessness about the future, loneliness, and crying. To link with family income, we selected the proportion of children living with a parent who scored in the top 15 per cent of the distribution, that is, whose score is associated with a very high tendency towards depression. While this 15 per cent cut-off does not necessarily have clinical significance, it is very restrictive and it indicates that these parents (mostly mothers) are very frequently battling signs of depression.
10. D. A. Wolfe, "Prevention of child abuse and neglect," in Determinants of Health: Children and Youth (Ottawa: National Forum on Health, 1998, pp.104-131); M. Main and R. Goldwyn, "Predicting rejection of her infant from mother's representation of her own experience," in the Journal of Abuse and Neglect, 1984, 8: pp. 203-17; National Crime Prevention Council, Preventing Crime by Investing in Families (Ottawa: NCPC, 1996).
11. The statistics on this condition are drawn from the NPHS, in which adult parents recalled stressful or traumatic events in their childhood. Stressful experiences included such things as a spell of two weeks or more in a hospital, their parents' divorce, problem drinking or drug use by their parents, physical abuse, or being sent away from home for doing something wrong. Even though the vast majority of parents surveyed indicated that they had not suffered any traumatic events in their childhood, we selected a relatively high cut-off of three or more events for our examination. We then linked the proportion of adults above these cut-offs with their household income.
12. C. Giunta, "Risk factors for emotional/behavioural problems in young adolescents: A protective analysis of adolescent and parental stress and symptoms," in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 1989, 57(6), pp. 732-740.
13. Health Canada, Passive Smoking: Nowhere to Hide (Ottawa, Health Canada, 1998).
14. D. Kohen, C. Hertzman and M. Wiens, "Environmental Changes and Children's Competencies," a paper prepared for "Investing in Children: A National Research Conference" sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, 1998.
16. Substandard housing is defined here as having major problems such as poor plumbing, inefficient and unsafe electrical and heating systems, sagging floors, bulging and damp walls, crumbling foundations, broken light fixtures, broken windows, and cracks in walls and ceilings. This definition is based on questions in the NLSCY.
17. N. Chaudhuri, "Child health, poverty and the environment," in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, Vol. 89, Supplement 1, 1998.
18. Paul Steinhauer, "Developing resiliency in children from disadvantaged populations," in Determinants of Health: Children and Youth (Ottawa: National Forum on Health, 1998); Dan Offord, "Correlates of emotional disorder from a community survey," in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 1990, 35(5), pp. 419-425; and Dafna Kohen, Clyde Hertzman and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, Neighbourhood Influences on Children's School Readiness, a paper prepared for "Investing in Children: A National Research Conference" sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, 1998.
19. In this case, a high level of aggression indicates a child with a score in the top third of the distribution, that is, a child who more frequently engages in the type of aggressive actions described in the text.
20. Chart 13 presents the proportion of children with scores in the top 10 per cent of the distribution, that is, children exhibiting the most frequent symptoms of emotional-disorder anxiety.
21. These scores do not necessarily have diagnostic or clinical significance, they simply represent the poorest scores that our sample allows us to focus on. For example, the children we selected as "highly hyperactive" would not necessarily all be diagnosed as hyperactive, but they do have the poorest scores on the hyperactivity scale compared to other children.
22. For this study, children scoring in the top 10 per cent are understood to have been involved in at least three delinquent behaviours.
23. In the NLSCY, children aged 4 and 5 were administered the Peabody Picture and Vocabulary Test (PPVT) which is designed to estimate a child's receptive or passive vocabulary development (children associate spoken words with pictures). Childrens' scores on this standardised test were assigned to three categories of development: delayed, normal and advanced. The chart shows only the proportion of children exhibiting delayed development
24. It should be noted that only about 50 per cent of school-age children in the NLSCY ended up being administered the math test. This was not a design feature, but rather an unfortunate result of the school questionnaire process. The smaller and less reliable sample size may explain the somewhat erratic nature of the results shown in this chart.
25. M. Boyle and E. Lipman, Do Places Matter?; D. Offord, E. Lipman and E. Duku, Which Children Don't Participate in Sports, the Arts, and Community Programs? Both papers were prepared for the workshop, "Investing in Children: A National Research Conference," sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, 1998.
26. As reported in Youth at Work in Canada (CCSD, 1999), the likelihood of youth aged 15 to 19 never having held a job is also strongly linked to the level of family income.
27. In Canada, the widely publicized work associated with Dr. Fraser Mustard, founder of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, Dr. Dan Offord, Director of the Centre for Studies of Children at Risk at McMaster University, and Dr. Paul Steinhauer, Chair of the Sparrow Lake Children's Alliance and Voices for Children has helped raise awareness of the connections between income and child development. Research funded by the Laidlaw Foundation through its Children at Risk Program and funding by Human Resources Development Canada of the extensive research in the NLSCY have also been major forces in creating wider public understanding of the factors that influence child development. Publications that provide evidence of the links between income and child development outcomes in the Canadian context include the following: Growing Up In Canada (Ottawa: HRDC, 1996); The Determinants of Health and Children (Ottawa: National Crime Prevention Council, 1996); The Health of Canada's Children, 2nd Edition (Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Child Health, 1994); Our Promise to Children, edited by Kathleen Guy, (Ottawa: Canadian Institute of Child Health, 1997). New sources of information are contained in many of the papers prepared for the HRDC conference, "Investing in Children: A National Research Conference," that was held in Ottawa in 1998.
28. Poverty in Canada, 2nd Edition, by Christopher Sarlo (Vancouver: Fraser Institute, 1996).
29. See a detailed account by one of the LICO pioneers, Jenny Podoluk, in Incomes of Canadians (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1968). Where did Statistics Canada's LICOs come from as a measure of poverty? The basis for the first LICO was a 1959 expenditure survey. When this measure was being developed, the method was much easier to defend, given the generally low level of postwar incomes and the high proportion of income that all families were required to spend on basic survival. A poor family was defined as one that had to spend more than 70 per cent of its income on the basics. This left very little money available for expenditures on other, non-survival items - a situation that probably resonated with a largely rural generation who had survived the Depression and six years of war, but the growing expenditure demands of an industrialized and increasingly urban society, with its attendant costs, had not yet been factored in. As a result, the initial LICOs more closely resembled an absolute measure of poverty.
As real incomes have risen over the years, continuing to use the proportion of expenditures spent on the basics of food, clothing and shelter is no longer a particularly compelling basis for defining or measuring poverty. Today, a "poor" family is required to spend over 50% of its income on survival needs; the 50% "left over" for other expenditures theoretically allows these families to maintain a living standard in some fixed relationship to the average standard of living in their community. As a result, LICOs are now seen as a relative measure of poverty, which bothers critics who believe that LICOs should provide for only physical survival.
However, while the method used to determine LICOs may not be as compelling today as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, the CCSD continues to support LICOs because the income levels identified closely resemble income levels that opinion polls show are supported by the majority of Canadians. And ultimately, where we set LICOs is a political decision based on how much inequality Canadians are willing to accept. Therefore, while it may be difficult to defend the statistical procedure used by Statistics Canada, it is not so difficult to defend the income levels defined by the LICOs. Unlike the Fraser Institute's seemingly "one calorie above starvation" method, LICOs define income levels that do not tolerate an excessive or punishing level of inequality. 30. For the development of this approach, see Not Enough: The Meaning and Measurement of Poverty in Canada (Ottawa: CCSD, 1984).
31. In addition to the Fraser Institute's ongoing attempts at a market basket approach, federal, provincial and territorial government researchers are developing a Market Basket Measure. See Applied Research Bulletin, Summer-Fall, 1998, produced by Human Resources Development Canada (Ottawa: HRDC, pp. 1-4). When compared to the LICO results, the Market Basket Measure would have resulted in a reduction in the rate of poverty in 1996, from 17 per cent to 12 per cent. The National Council of Welfare has also engaged in this debate with its report, A New Poverty Line: Yes, No or Maybe? (Ottawa: NCW, 1999).
32. Since 1967, the Gallup public opinion polling organization has occasionally asked the following question: "Generally speaking, what do you think is the least amount of money a family of four needs each week to get along in this community?" In each of the 18 years since this question was asked, the median response has very closely tracked the corresponding LICO (see Chart 28). The question was not asked in 1994, but interpolating between the two nearest years, we estimate a value for 1994 equal to an annual income of $25,200.
33. It is true that the federal government has expanded and renovated the former Child Tax Credit by introducing the National Child Benefit which provides a net gain to some low-income families. However, the increases to date have brought low-income families back to roughly where they were 10 years ago, because the child benefit - old and new - is not fully indexed to inflation. Moreover, families on social assistance have been denied any net income gain from the National Child Benefit because an equal amount of their social assistance cheque is "clawed back" in all but two provinces.
34. See new data in Statistics Canada's Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics, published in The Daily, released on Friday, March 26, 1999.
35. David P. Ross, Paul Roberts and Katherine Scott, "Variability of Outcomes in Lone-parent Children," and "Mediating Factors Among Children in Lone-parent Families," workshop papers prepared for "Investing in Children: A National Research Conference" sponsored by Human Resources Development Canada, 1998.
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