|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
TWO SIGNIFICANT EVENTS HAVE OCCURRED OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS in relation to the study and discussion of child well-being in Canada. The first was the release of new and important data contained in two national surveys - the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY) and the National Population Health Survey (NPHS). These fresh and original data sources have greatly expanded our knowledge about the conditions in which our children live. The data have also provided us with the means to create new measures of children's well-being.
The second significant event is the ongoing debate about the meaning and measurement of poverty in Canada. Reduced to its most essential elements, this debate pits those who consider poverty to be grossly over-estimated, against those who argue that poverty in Canada is, if anything, underestimated. In carrying out the research for this report, it has become clear to us that what is needed is a new and realistic approach to help determine an appropriate poverty level. And where better to start than with the well-being of children and the concept of "poverty of opportunity?"
This report began as a simple exercise to explore the extent to which family income affects the child development process. While many people have acknowledged that family income can aid or hinder children's outcomes, data from the NLSCY and the NPHS now provide a much more detailed picture of this relationship. After examining child outcomes and the formative living conditions of children, we found that there were clear links between family income and 27 different factors that are critical to child well-being.
While preparing the report, however, we became increasingly concerned about the growing debate over the definition of poverty in Canada. The material in this report provides additional information about the connection between low income and children's well-being - information that until now, no one has discussed in relation to establishing the "proper" poverty line. What if producing healthy children was the central objective of anti-poverty efforts? It would mean that far more would have to be taken into consideration beyond simply providing the "basic necessities" of life - typically identified as minimum levels of food, clothing and shelter.
Information generated by these surveys clearly illustrates how income levels are strongly associated with factors that are critical to the well-being of children, and the data demonstrate how the likelihood of good child development increases with family income. This information can, and should, be used to inform the ongoing poverty debate by identifying what can be reasonably expected in terms of child well-being when the poverty line is set at different income levels, and takes into account the current structure of social programs and services available to families.
Part I of this report graphically documents the relationship between family income levels and 27 factors that are critical to healthy child development, including behaviour, learning, health status, engagement in cultural, recreational and social activities, and specific living conditions within the family and the community. The report also touches on the effects of these 27 factors on the child development process.
In Part II of the report, we discuss how this knowledge can be used to broaden and inform the poverty debate, and we introduce a concept we call "poverty of opportunity." We believe that the objective of anti-poverty efforts and measures should be to reduce the enormous inequality of opportunity documented in Part I, particularly as it relates to family income levels. In our research, we found that in 80 per cent of the factors examined, child outcomes improved substantially as annual family income rose towards $30,000. In 50 per cent of the factors examined, this trend continued steadily as family income rose to $40,000. Beyond this income level, there continued to be some improvement in child outcomes for all the factors examined, but the rate of change was not as substantial as was seen at the lower income ranges.
To improve the likelihood that all of Canada's children could develop to their full potential, our findings indicate that we would need to establish a floor for income inequality in the $30,000 to $40,000 range for a family of four. As well, we should consider how to improve access to the public and private services that are necessary for healthy child development, but that are not currently available to low-income families. The appropriate solution may involve a combination of income enhancement and improved public services.
Statistics Canada's low income cut-off (LICO) and other measures being proposed to replace the LICO as an indicator of poverty consistently fall below the $30,000 income threshold for a family of four. At the same time, access to public services in Canada is being reduced or privatised. It is time to reconsider the poverty debate in light of this new evidence that children suffer as family incomes fall. At the moment, low-income families are being hit hard from two directions - a movement to reduce poverty lines, which may lead to a further tightening of assistance levels in many social programs, and the need for all parents to try to make do with less as their incomes stagnate while the costs of goods and services for their children rise.
The Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD) is an independent, national, non-profit organization focussing on issues of social and economic security.
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