Having recently welcomed a baby into our family, I’ve been thinking a lot about the conditions that kids need for a good start in life.
A new study from the United States really brought home the connections between income and child health. The study looked at the ability of low income moms to afford the most basic of baby supplies: diapers. It found that one in 12 low income moms delays changing their baby’s diapers after they’ve been soiled as a way of making their supply last a little longer. Not changing soiled diapers can lead to skin and urinary tract infections and discomfort.
Low income affects child health in Canada, too. A recent Wellesley Institute report on childhood obesity demonstrated that 24 percent of children growing up in the most well-off neighbourhoods are obese, compared with 35 percent of children in the poorest neighbourhoods, and in our work on social assistance reform we found evidence of mothers not eating so that they could feed their children. A recent UNICEF report ranked Canada 17th out of 29 advanced economy countries for child well-being.
Increasing family incomes reduces child poverty. In Ontario, child poverty fell by 6.6 percent between 2008 and 2010 when the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage were increased. This progress halted when the province froze the minimum wage in 2010, social assistance rates have not kept up with the cost of living, and scheduled increases to the Ontario Child Benefit were delayed.
Ontario is currently working to create a new Poverty Reduction Strategy, which will be completed by the end of the year. The 25 in 5 Network for Poverty Reduction is calling on the government to cut poverty in half by 2018 by ensuring secure and livable incomes for all Ontarians. This means increasing income supports for people receiving social assistance, ensuring the ongoing adequacy of the Ontario Child Benefit, improving employment training programs, and increasing the minimum wage.
The federal government also has a role to play in ensuring that all Canadian families have the opportunity to get their kids off to a good start. Employment Insurance (EI) offers maternity and parental benefits, but these benefits are not universal and are poorly designed for low income families. My family didn’t receive our first EI payment until our baby was almost a month old – not very helpful for families that are surviving week-to-week. Worse, we didn’t receive a determination about our eligibility for the Canada Child Tax Benefit or the Universal Child Care Benefit until our baby was four months old.
It’s not hard to imagine that low income parents in Canada are delaying changing soiled diapers, too.