Judith Maxwell is a well-respected social policy expert who was a key advisor to the federal government during the Chrétien-Martin era, and offers these reflections for us all to consider.
I am a member of St. Matthew’s – the Anglican Church in the Glebe, and before I retired I was involved in social policy research, including issues with respect to child poverty and early childhood development.
As I am sure you realize, the issue of child poverty can be addressed through many channels. We cannot reduce the poverty of children without reducing the poverty of their parents. However, we can mitigate the negative effects of child poverty on early childhood development by supporting those families with well-designed and well-targeted services and supports. We must also recognize that there are more vulnerable children in middle income and well to do families than there are in poor families. So in an ideal world, most programs and policies should be universally available.
Work done by the Canadian Policy Research Networks in the late 1990s summarized a large body of research by identifying three enabling conditions for healthy child development: adequate income, effective parenting and supportive communities. Children in families with low income can thrive if there is effective parenting and the family has access to good community services. However, we know that poverty in urban areas is highly concentrated in specific neighbourhoods. (This means that poverty is well-hidden from the average Ottawa citizen.) This is demonstrated by the maps in Ottawa’s Vital Signs for 2009 and 2010, published by the Community Foundation of Ottawa.
More recent work led by Clyde Hertzman at UBC has shown that the most vulnerable children are living in neighbourhoods where incomes are low and community services are weak. Community services include safe places to play, parent resource centres, quality child care, accessible health clinics etc. To measure the needs and successes of children, Success by Six Ottawa publishes Early Development Index Scores for pre-school students in Ottawa. These scores should be available by neighbourhood so that you can help parishes to identify where needs are highest.
Recent immigrants to Canada constitute a large share of the population of many of these poor neighbourhoods. This dramatically increases the complexity of the challenges faced by the families and by the neighbourhoods – social services and schools are overstretched, and parents need extra help in learning how to navigate on behalf of their children. Many come from cultures where there is a strong tradition of mothers staying home to provide care. Here in Canada, those mothers need help in becoming the advocate for their children and in gaining confidence in their own role as the child’s first teacher. The HIPPY program is designed specifically to meet those needs (Home Instruction for Parents of Pre-school Youngsters). It is located at the Vanier Community Service Centre and the leader is Kathleen Saso.
In rural areas, the problem is more difficult to pin down. On the Quebec side, families are served by the comprehensive approach to child well-being and by the Centres de Petites Enfances. In Ontario, there is a commitment to community resource centres for children and families, but I am not sure how well they serve the rural areas.
As you probably know, Canada, outside Quebec, falls way behind other developed country in its support for children and families. This has been documented by the OECD (Starting Strong II: Early Childhood Education and Care, 2006) and by Unicef (The Child Care Transition, 2008). While Ontario has begun to strengthen its supports for ECE through full time kindergarten, this is causing short-term dislocation for many child care centres, families and schools. Ideally, child care centres will be able to provide more spaces for younger children as they lose 4 and 5 year olds.
One of the challenges in planning supports for children in poor families is that we do not have strong information on the availability of or the cost of child care. Gordon Cleveland did a study with several co-authors in 2008 New Evidence about Child Care in Canada published by IRPP. He found that 38% of families with preschool children and mothers employed incurred no child care costs (by parents off-shifting or relying on a relative). But 27% paid $4000 or more in 2005. (Table 4) Costs began to rise steeply in 2005, but I do not know whether the trend continued. What is notable is that low income families pay far less than families with higher income. The concern is that the quality of the care is also lower for the children from poor families, when we know that higher quality care can do much to mitigate negative effects of low income or weaker parenting and services.
So let me summarize some implications for the ADO initiative.
• In Ontario, children in poor families are not well supported by broad public policies, relative to other developed countries. This means that the well-being of poor families depends to a great extent on access to local services and supports. It also raises the importance of advocacy for better national and provincial policies although that is a longer-term initiative where it is better to join with other advocates in the area like Campaign 2000.
• The needs of families vary from one neighbourhood to another, depending on the existing network of community supports and services and especially the access to high quality child care.
• Families who have recently immigrated to Canada and Aboriginal families who have migrated to Ottawa have particular needs for support in their parenting roles.
• Given the Diocese’ growing interest in the Council of the North, there may be opportunities for ministry with Aboriginal families and the social service agencies that serve them.
• Every neighbourhood needs some kind of inventory of local services that touch the lives of families from pre-natal care until the child is well established in school, as well as grassroots knowledge of the needs of families. In Ottawa, there are Community Health Centres and Community Resource Centres that can speak to these issues. I don’t know what community hubs exist in rural areas.
• Poor families tend to use sources of non-parental care that are unregulated and in some cases unpaid. So it is important to consider programming initiatives that strengthen the quality of local services, that create networks within the community which give parents a sense of belonging and a place to go for advice and opportunities to learn. These places should be open to all, and thus avoid any stigma.
• By nurturing mothers and engaging fathers, programs can empower the parents to be the best they can be for their children, as we can see in the HIPPY program.
• There is no magic bullet to deal with child poverty. Child care is an important piece of infrastructure in a developed society where 70% of mothers or more are working. But there are many other ways to enrich the opportunities for children to develop and learn, and other ways to support parents in the important work they do as parents.