Canoe News

Monday, May 10, 1999

Poverty study raises questions

By SUE BAILEY -- Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) -- A family of four needs between $30,000 and $40,000 a year to raise healthy children, says a new study.

That's higher than Statistics Canada's low-income cutoff of $28,000, and nearly double the conservative Fraser Institute's 1996 poverty line of $19,803 for a family of four living in a major city.

Children can be considered poor and at risk of ill health, lower grades, social isolation and violence even if they have the minimum basics of food, clothing and shelter, the study concludes.

"This is a new perspective on the poverty debate," said David Ross, who wrote Income and Child Well-being with Paul Roberts for the Canadian Council on Social Development.

Canada has no official poverty line, and there's ongoing debate on how and where it should be set.

Ross and Roberts studied 27 elements of child development using new data from the National Population Health Survey and the National Longitudinal Survey on Children and Youth.

These include family, neighbourhood safety, aggression, health, vocabulary scores, cultural and recreational participation.

The study focused on children up to age 11 living in two-parent families.

It's the most comprehensive study of low income and children's quality of life ever done in Canada, said Ross.

The researchers found that for 80 per cent of the 27 elements of child development studied, children from families earning less than $30,000 a year fared worse than other kids. This was also true for 50 per cent of the elements for children with family incomes below $40,000.

Their findings for those whose families earn less than $30,000 include:

The study is fodder for those who believe the federal government must invest more in children's programs and services, Ross said in an interview.

"Not just in nutrition and housing, but overall development."

Good health includes emotional health and a feeling of social belonging, he said.

"I was surprised at how consistently poor kids did worse. I would have thought there'd have been a more gradual decline."

Instead, there was a significant drop in the elements measured once income dipped below $30,000, Ross said.

Services such as quality child care and cultural and recreational programs should be available to all families, he said.

"To me, they're basic human social services that we should provide."

The government, he said, should also help poor parents upgrade their education and find better jobs.

But government policy shouldn't focus just on the poorest children, said Martha Friendly, a child care researcher at the University of Toronto.

"It's true that very poor kids do worse on almost everything. But they aren't the only ones."

More comprehensive programs for children at all income levels are needed, she said.

"There has to be a really serious look at the range of public policies needed to make life better for children."

Copyright © 1999, Canoe Limited Partnership.