Globe and Mail

How about the middle class?

Since the 1970s, support programs have targeted the poor. Some children's advocates say it's time to help all families

The Globe and Mail
Friday, December 10, 1999

Toronto -- Despite rising child poverty, advocacy groups in Canada have a message for the federal government: Return to helping out the middle class.

Ottawa's first "children's budget" is planned for February, with hundreds of millions of dollars slated for early childhood development. And federal-provincial talks are scheduled for next year on new support for the early years.

Children's advocates say the budget is a chance to restore the vision of support for all families that marked the universal postwar programs such as the baby bonus. Since the 1970s, a generation of family-support programs has largely targeted the poor.

Fraser Mustard, whose name is as closely linked to early years development as anyone's in Canada, said the government must recognize that all families, and not just the poor, need support for their children's early growth.

"To argue just on poverty is a middle-class argument based on do-goodism," the founder of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research said in an interview.

"You didn't just set up public education for the poor, and why the hell should early child development be set up any differently? It's blatantly stupid."

Still, the government faces a conundrum. About 35 per cent of children in poor families have academic, social, emotional or behavioural problems, while 23 per cent of wealthy children have those problems, according to a federally sponsored longitudinal study of more than 20,000 children.

Yet most troubled children are growing up in middle-class or wealthy families. Even if there were no poverty at all, there would be only a small decline in the total number of troubled children.


Two 34-year-old mothers, two drastically different sets of needs.

One is a single mother of two, struggling along on $32,000 a year and wondering what to do about her four-year-old daughter, whose life is marked by chronic sadness over the disappearance more than two years ago of her mentally ill father.

"She would start crying out of the blue," said the mother, who asked not to be named. "And when I asked her what was wrong, she would say, 'I'm sad because I'm missing my father.' "

Her daughter has such a fear of abandonment that "I can't leave to throw out the garbage," she said.

The mother knew that she needed help, but she could not afford private treatment. Then she heard about Adventure Place, a Toronto day treatment program for disabled or disturbed children that also sends workers out into schools, daycare centres and homes to help children with troubles turn around their lives. Perpetually struggling for money from government and charitable foundations, it provides services without charge.

A worker, Leora MacDonald, helped the mother set up a "life book" with pictures of the father and other important people in her daughter's life. "She looks at it whenever she's feeling sad or angry and it helps her a lot."

Ms. MacDonald also encouraged her to support her daughter in exploring her feelings. "I used to just hide it and say, 'It's going to go away.' " But with a more honest, open approach, "it's true, she's working it out."

The worker has also helped her improve her bedtime procedures -- a sticker as a reward helps -- and is looking for a play-therapy program for the girl.

"I know I won't be lost. There's help for her and for me," the woman said.

Then there is Jacqui Strachan, a Toronto mother of two who takes children into her home to supplement her husband's income of nearly $40,000 a year. She dreams of a humble space where she can take young children for play and song. And perhaps some education programs for herself.

In her dream, the space occupies no more than a corner -- one classroom -- of the nearest elementary school. There are toys and books and parent volunteers, rich and poor, from all backgrounds.

It's free, and it's within walking distance. It's not a daycare centre (though it might have emergency babysitting so she could volunteer in the school); it would be for the stay-at-home mothers who are stuck indoors, or the nannies, or those who, like her, offer daycare in their homes.

Ms. Strachan is hesitant to make too strong a claim for her dream -- she is middle class, and believes the poor need government support -- but when pushed she reveals her bafflement at how public programming for families has evolved.

"You almost have to be categorized to get a program," said the Toronto woman, who lives on the street in the Danforth village where the residents are permitting a reporter to track their lives for a year.

"Kids are kids, you know?"


Fraser Mustard's vision for children is strikingly similar to Ms. Strachan's dream, with a component that might also help the mother with the sad four-year-old daughter.

In the Early Years Study, a report he co-wrote last year for Ontario Premier Mike Harris, he proposed a network of family-resource centres that would offer child care, play-based learning for young children guided by early childhood educators and parents, toy and resource libraries, family events, nutrition programs and referral services, and prenatal and postnatal supports.

It would also provide home visits.

While it would be a universal program, it would also be able to steer the poor and vulnerable to special services they might need.

Such centres seem designed to galvanize a community -- to have the government step in and provide supports that used to come naturally to neighbourhoods and extended families.

"I think it is a modern-day solution to bringing people together," said Catherine Moher, executive director of the Gerrard Resource Centre in downtown Toronto.

"We've lost the old watering hole. It isn't there any more. At one point, it might have been the church. Years ago, people came together more. Now, we're more individualized."


Why a return to support for the middle-class now, with 1.4 million children in poverty, up from one million in 1989?

Partly it is the legacy of Littleton, Colo., and similar massacres in the United States: All is not well in middle-class homes. Families of all kinds are under stress.

Beyond all that is a concern that targeted programs separate people rather than bringing them together. And unless the middle class is included, there will not be enough support for anything but a fairly niggling program.

"We're always targeting. We're always saying, 'Some people get and some people don't,' " said Jane Jenson of the Canadian Policy Research Network, an influential think tank based in Ottawa.

"Those messages are undermining social cohesion. Because people are feeling like they're contributing and contributing and they're not getting any recognition."



Prevalence of children with difficulties by family income:

Lowest quartile       35.3%

Lower middle          29.5

Upper middle          24.8

Highest quartile      23.2

Prevalence of children with difficulties by parenting style:

Permissive-irrational    43.5

Authoritarian            30

Permissive               29.1

Authoritative            19.6


Permissive-irrational: Problems seldom discussed with children in a calm way; alternatives rarely provided; more erratic.
Authoritarian: Highly controlling; less flexible responsiveness and warmth lacking.
Permissive: Overnurturing; few standards provided; extremely tolerant of misbehaviour.
Authoritative: Warm and nurturing; firm limits set on behaviour; alternative ways of behaving presented; participation in family decisions allowed.
Source: National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, 1994

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