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The Canadian Experience of Childhood Poverty and the Effects of Social Policy on the Social Determinants of Health

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The Canadian Experience of Childhood Poverty and the Effects of Social Policy on the Social Determinants of Health


Social Inequality

Dr. N. Verberg

St.Francis Xavier University

November 27, 2012

The Canadian Experience of Childhood Poverty and the Effects of Social Policy on the Social Determinants of Health

Childhood is a time for development of the body and mind. Without a nourishing and secure environment, this growth cannot occur to its full potential. Having the health and safety of the world's youth in mind, the United Nations convention on the Rights of the Child authored a set of basic rights for young people and had countries agree to provide their children with these rights. Included in this list are the right to the highest standard of health possible and the right to a standard of living that is adequate for physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development (UNICEF Rights under the Convention on the Rights of the Child 2012). Living in even relative poverty causes some these basic rights to be infringed upon; the social determinants of health are all impacted negatively by poverty and greatly increase the likelihood of impaired social and mental development, as well as other complications later in life (Raphael, Dennis 2010). With the shift of public policy towards neoliberal ideology, Canada is moving further away from improving the situation of children living in poverty.

Childhood Poverty in Canada

The Canadian Government made a promise in 1989 to eradicate childhood poverty by 2000 (Campaign 2000), "Canada's child poverty rate is higher today than when that target was first announced," states the 2012 UNICEF innocenti report on children living in poverty in wealthy countries (UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre 2012). While establishing a goal to eradicate childhood poverty was a step in the right direction, without a cohesive political strategy no real progress can be made. Part of the problem is the official position held by our government that Canada cannot, and does not, measure the level of poverty due to the disagreement on the definition (Kerr, D. 2001). The study of underlying causes of poverty is already intricate and is further complicated by the lack of consensus regarding the definition. For the purpose of social discussion, the 'low income cut-off' (LICO) is widely used to measure poverty in our country. The common standard for this line of relative income poverty is 50% of the median income in Canada. The "deep poverty" income would be placed at 50% of the LICO (Hunter, Garson 2010). For the purpose of this essay, Unicef's figure of 13.3% from their 2012 report on child poverty in wealthy nations was used (UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre 2010).

Neoliberalism vs. The Welfare State

Children of financially precarious individuals are at the mercy of the social policies our government implements. Canada has been a welfare state since the passing of social welfare reforms in the 1960's (Teeple, Gary 2000) but in recent decades has shifted towards neoliberal economic and political policy; the two ideologies are in direct conflict with one another. A welfare state believes in the provision of social services to all members of its society and the transfer of state funds towards programs that benefit their society, such as healthcare and education. Their goal is to reduce economic insecurity due to contingencies such as old age and unemployment (Teeple, Gary 2000) and to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable members of its society, namely children. Neoliberal policy is geared away from wealth redistribution, supporting minimal government involvement in the economy. A welfare state is based on the principles of equal opportunity, equitable distribution, and public responsibility to those who are unable to provide the minimum necessities of a decent life for themselves; Neoliberalism touts deregulation, the growth of the private sector, and the pursuit of individual responsibility (Teeple, Gary 2000). Health equity is defined by the World Health Organization as "the absence of unfair and avoidable or remediable differences in health among population groups defined socially, economically, demographically or geographically." (Solar, Orielle 2007) working with this definition it is evident that as Canada shifts increasingly towards neoliberal policy, health equity for children decreases; differences in social determinants of health are avoidable and it has been shown that nations that intervene show lower child poverty rates and better indicators of children's health ( Raphael, Dennis 2010)

Social Determinants of Health

So, what happens to children born into poverty when their country is struggling to find a place between welfare state and neoliberal reform? From conception, these children experience health inequity due to their parents' socioeconomic status; they are predisposed to lower birth weights and health complications throughout their childhoods (Raphael, Dennis 2010). This is due to the factors influencing health that have to do with socioeconomic status and variations in living situations, parental education, family and peer relationships, employment and working conditions, social safety net, social exclusion, and unemployment and employment security (Raphael, Dennis 2010). These factors are referred to as "Social Determinants of Health". The environment into which a person is born and raised influences cognitive, physical, emotional, and social development (Raphael, Dennis 2010). Those born into poverty are prone to food insecurity, poor quality housing and lack of responsive health care services. They are also less likely to be ready to enter the schooling system when they reach school age. They are less likely than their peers from middle class families to have the appropriate level of cognitive development, social competence, communication skills, general knowledge, and emotional maturity to succeed in elementary school (Raphael, Dennis 2010). This is due in part to the fact that they are unlikely to have the same access to early learning tools, as well as quality time with their parents, proper nutrition, and a supportive, stimulating home environment (Raphael, Dennis 2010). Lack of school readiness subsequently leads to adverse educational



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