|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
In this section of the report, children's development in four main areas is reviewed in relation to their family incomes: behaviour, health, learning, and cultural and recreational participation.
BehaviourTo succeed in later life, children need to develop good social skills and learn positive ways of interaction while they are young. This is a learned process, shaped in part by the child's temperament, and also significantly affected by the adults and peers with whom the child relates. Evidence of negative behaviours, such as those identified below, are strong indicators that a child is headed for trouble, if not immediately, then possibly in their teen or adult years. These antisocial behaviours commonly lead to difficulties in school, the workplace or the home, and they place the child at risk of coming into conflict with the law at some point. All of the information for these behavioural outcomes is drawn from the 1994 cycle of the NLSCY and is based on responses provided by the child's parent - in most cases, the mother.
Indirect aggressionCommonly known as "troublemakers," children who are indirectly aggressive tend to instigate fights and conflicts among their peers or family members. Chart 12 shows the proportions of children in families at different income levels who demonstrate high levels of indirect aggression. The measurement of indirect aggression is based on parents' responses to questions in the NLSCY about specific behaviours, including how frequently their child encourages others to dislike or exclude someone, and how often their child says bad things behind another child's back. As Chart 12 shows, nearly 40 per cent of children in low-income families demonstrate high levels of indirect aggression, compared to 25 to 29 per cent of children in families whose incomes are $30,000 or higher.
Emotional problemsChildren who frequently exhibit feelings or behaviours such as sadness or depression, fear, anxiety, worrying, crying, acting distressed, having trouble enjoying themselves, or being high-strung have emotional problems - referred to by psychologists as emotional-disorder anxiety. These emotional problems are likely to inhibit the children from developing to their full potential. As Chart 13 shows, children in low-income families are almost twice as likely to suffer from high levels of emotional-disorder anxiety as are children whose family incomes are $30,000 or greater.
Hyperactivity and inattentionWhen children are hyperactive and have short attention spans, their ability to learn or to relate well to others is harmed. Children were identified in the NLSCY as having such problems if they were frequently unable to sit still, they were easily distracted, restless, had trouble sticking to an activity or concentrating, fidgeted, acted impulsively, or could not wait their turn during games or group activities.
Chart 14 shows that 20 per cent of children in low-income families had the worst scores - that is, they ranked in the top 15 per cent in terms of hyperactivity and inattention - compared to about 12 per cent of children in high-income families with such scores. The proportion of children exhibiting these high hyperactivity scores drops steadily as family incomes rise from under $20,000 to $40,000, then the scores level off and drop again once family incomes exceed $60,000.
Delinquent behavioursCertain negative behaviours among children are precursors of what may become criminal activities as they grow older. These behaviours include lying and cheating, destroying their own or other children's things, stealing within or outside the home, and vandalizing property. Chart 15 shows that children in poor families are twice as likely to have scores within the top 10 per cent in terms of frequency of delinquent behaviours, compared to children in modest-income families, and they are nearly three times as likely to have high delinquency scores as children in high-income families. There is almost a 10 percentage-point difference in the likelihood of exhibiting delinquent behaviours when children from low- and high-income families are compared.
Hanging around with children in troubleAssociating with others who frequently get into trouble can also lead to problem behaviours and negative consequences for children. In the NLSCY, parents were asked to respond to a simple question: "How often does your child hang around with kids you think are frequently in trouble?" Chart 16 shows the proportion of children whose parents thought that they "often" or "sometimes" hung around with other kids who were frequently in trouble. The chart shows that almost three times as many children from low-income families often or sometimes hang out with kids who are frequently in trouble, compared to children from high-income families.
HealthTo establish whether there is a link between family income and children's health, we report on the number of children in different family income categories who are considered by their parents to be in less than excellent health or to have problems with one or more of their senses or thinking abilities.
General healthIn the NLSCY, parents were asked: "In general, how would you rate your child's health?" The responses were grouped into five categories, ranging from poor to excellent. Chart 17 concentrates on the minority of children reported as not in excellent health. When linked to income, the results show a continuously declining association between poorer levels of health and income. A far higher proportion of children from high-income families than children from low-income families were considered by their parents to be in excellent health. About half of children in low-income families are reported to be in less than excellent health, compared to less than one-third of children in high-income families.
Ability to functionProblems with childrens' senses or learning abilities indicate how their basic health affects their functioning. Known among academics as "functional health," measurement of these abilities combines the results of testing on children for eight basic attributes: vision, hearing, speech, mobility, dexterity, cognition, emotion, and pain and discomfort. As Chart 18 shows, evidence of these problems is far higher among children in low-income families than it is among children in high-income families. The rate of functional health problems among children drops steadily as family incomes rise to $40,000, then the rate levels off and drops again once family incomes rise above $80,000. Children in low-income families are over two and one-half times more likely to have low levels of functional health than children from high-income families.
Learning OutcomesThis section illustrates the association between family income and how well children learn. It considers four learning-related outcomes: the vocabulary development of preschool-aged children, math scores, reading skills, and special education requirements among primary school students.
Vocabulary developmentOne of the most basic skills that children need in order to succeed in school is the ability to use language. By the time children start school, those who are unable to use language well enough to make themselves easily understood are less likely than other children to meet the learning requirements of their age group. As Chart 19 shows, delayed vocabulary development is far more prevalent among children in low-income families than it is among children in high-income families. Only eight per cent of children from high-income families exhibited delayed vocabulary development, compared to more than one-third of children from low-income families. The rate of delayed vocabulary development declines rapidly up to family incomes of less than $30,000, then decreases more gradually until family incomes exceed $60,000.
Math scoresChildren's problems with math appear to decrease as family incomes rise. As shown in Chart 20, the proportion of children with low math scores (that is, scores in the bottom third) drops steadily as family incomes rise above $30,000. The two peaks seen in the chart, representing the number of children with math problems in families with incomes below $30,000 and in families with incomes around $50,000, are likely due to less reliable sample sizes collected during the NLSCY.
Reading for pleasureChildren who read for pleasure are building important learning skills. Vocabulary development, spelling and the proper use of grammar are all accentuated through increased reading. As Chart 21 shows, twice the proportion of children in low-income families are infrequent readers compared to children in high-income families. More than 12 per cent of children in low-income families seldom read for pleasure, compared to six per cent of children in high-income families. The rate drops for household incomes below $40,000, then rises slightly and starts dropping again once household incomes exceed $50,000.
Need for special educationChildren who have learning problems that do not allow them to accomplish the standard school requirements without additional help need special education. Having special needs places the child at greater risk of falling behind in school, and in later years, at greater risk of dropping out before having completed high school. The NLSCY asked parents whether their child was receiving special education because a physical, emotional, behavioural or other problem limited the kind or amount of school work that their child could do. Parents were asked to respond with a simple 'Yes' or 'No.' Chart 22 indicates a clear association between family income levels and the proportion of children receiving special education. The number of children receiving special education drops sharply as family incomes rise from below $20,000 to $40,000, at which point the rate levels off. The likelihood of children from low-income families receiving special education is about twice that of children from middle- and high-income families.
Cultural and Recreational ParticipationThis section looks at the relationship between family income and children's participation in cultural and recreational activities within their communities. It also compares participation rates for work and study among teens at different family income levels, in order to provide some indication of the proportion of teens who are neither in school nor employed.
Participating in sports, joining clubs or groups, and taking music, dance or art lessons are examples of ways in which young people can participate in their community, learn new skills, and socialize beyond their family boundaries. In addition to building healthy bodies and acquiring valuable skills, children's involvement in cultural and recreational activities can protect them from emotional and social problems. For example, children who participate in the arts are one-third less likely to have one or more social or emotional problems, compared to children who do not participate in such activities.
The extent to which children participate in community activities depends both on their family's resources and on the availability of good parks, playgrounds, arenas, swimming pools and community centres. Where these facilities are available in a community, the participation rate of children in related activities is higher than it is in communities where cultural and recreational amenities are lacking.
Organized sportsBeyond the obvious health benefits, organized sports also provide children with an opportunity to learn from coaches, instructors and mentors. Participating as a member of a team teaches children important leadership skills, instills self-confidence and improves social abilities such as sharing and co-operation. In the NLSCY, parents were asked how often their children participated in organized sporting activities, with responses ranging over five categories from "most days" to "almost never." The results presented in Chart 23 focus on those who "almost never" participate in organized sports.
The results indicate that children's participation in organized sports is related strongly to their family's income. About three-quarters of children in low-income families rarely participate in organized sports, compared to one-quarter of children in high-income families. The participation rate increases across the entire income range, but particularly for those with incomes above $40,000. Undoubtedly, the high cost of equipment, instruction, and facility fees that are required to participate in many sports acts as a strong deterrent to children in lower-income families.
Unorganized sportsParticipating in unorganized sports also contributes to children's good health and the acquisition of social and co-operative skills. Chart 24 reveals that compared to organized sports, the less costly participation in unorganized sport is higher at all income levels. However, children from low-income families are still less likely to participate in unorganized sports than are children in middle-income families. Compared to the results for organized sporting activities, the difference in the participation rates for children in low- and high-income families is lower.
Music, dance and art lessonsTaking instruction in these activities represents another form of extracurricular learning and skill development. The NLSCY survey asked parents how often their child engaged in music, dance or art lessons outside of school hours. Chart 25 illustrates the proportion of children who "almost never" engage in these lessons, and it shows that the vast majority of children from all income levels almost never participate in music, dance or art lessons outside of school. However, participation is linked to income, with a 26 percentage-point difference in participation rates between children from low- and high-income families. The cost of purchasing lessons, equipment, supplies and instruments favours those children from families with higher incomes.
Club, group and community program participationThe important and positive aspects for child development associated with these activities are the acquisition of social and other skills (depending on the nature of the program) through participation with other children and the learning acquired through the instruction and mentoring of group and club leaders. The NLSCY asked parents how often their child took part in club or group programs with qualified leaders outside of school hours. The results shown in Chart 26 include only those children who reportedly "almost never" participate in such group or club activities. While over two-thirds of children at all income levels almost never engage in club or group programs, the tendency is more pronounced among children from low-income families: about 80 per cent rarely participate in these community programs, compared to 71 per cent of children in high-income families.
Teens neither employed nor in schoolBetween the ages of 16 and 19, teens in Canada are generally expected to be attending school or working, or both. Some teens who are doing neither may be considered to be idle, and they are at a much higher risk than other teens of getting into trouble with the law, developing problem behaviours such as alcohol or drug addictions, and ending up poor as adults. It is therefore worrisome that about one in six teens from low-income families is neither employed nor in school, compared to only one teen in 25 from middle- and high-income families.
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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