Poverty and early childhood development in Canada

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Poverty in Canada

Compared to other affluent countries, Canada has low rates of public spending and high child poverty rates, and has received several UN reprimands for failing to improve child and family poverty1,2. Though estimates vary, poverty affects approximately three million Canadians, 20% (or 600,000) of whom are children3. It is believed that around 15% of children, almost one in six, live below poverty thresholds4,5. Meanwhile, child poverty rates in Ontario lie around 14%, suggesting that almost 19,000 children are born into low-income families every year6,7. Perhaps most disappointingly, this is not a new, or unrecognized problem. In 1989, recognizing the high child poverty rates in Canada, the Canadian House of Commons voted unanimously to eliminate child poverty by 20008; this was followed shortly after by Canada’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991. However, almost 25 years after this original motion was passed, some argue that the situation has deteriorated rather than improved9.

Poverty and Impaired ECD

International policy standards define “early childhood” as the period from prenatal development to eight years old10. Poverty impacts can occur as early as the prenatal period, where external stressors during pregnancy can affect specific body organ integrity, emotional and sensory regulation, gross and fine motor skills, general brain development, and endocrine function11. During childhood, it obstructs important opportunities for healthy development, such as early learning and childcare access, the cost of which is so high in Canada that enrollment of one child would cost a two-parent, low-income family an average of 48% of their net earnings12. These impacts in turn reduce their readiness for school, school achievement, and adult productivity8,. In fact, it has been suggested that children who experience poverty before four years old can come to school with reduced brain volume and already four to nine IQ points below their more affluent peers15,16. A range of negative effects resulting from exposure to poverty in early childhood carry through to adulthood, including increased antisocial behaviour and poverty17. It is through these pathways that poverty exhibits an intergenerational transmission of disadvantage, as poor parents are less able to provide their children with health-promoting opportunities, nutrition, and stimulation, which leads to long-lasting impacts on development, productivity, and health17,18.

Impaired ECD and Health

Research consistently demonstrates that impaired ECD increases risk of a wide range of negative health outcomes experienced over the entire life course. Early childhood poverty and impaired development reduce coping skills, resistance to health problems, and overall health and well-being, predicting health outcomes in later childhood, adolescence, and adulthood17. Taken together, reduced health-promoting opportunities and increased prevalence of hazards during childhood can result in higher rates of mental health problems, injury, and death as a child, adolescent, and adult19.

Policy Action

For the most part, poverty reduction is sought through provincial action. Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Strategy, for example, has created some progress since it was launched in 2008. Gains have not been as dramatic as hoped for, however, highlighting the importance of a review and adaptation of current strategies. Policies must target important pathways to the reduction of poverty and its harmful effects. The focus should be on early childhood, recognizing the importance of this period for development, health, and well-being throughout the life course. In order to improve the situation within the next 5 years, three policy areas requiring attention are included.

  1. Increase minimum wage to $14/hour by 2018, addressing the problem of working citizens trapped in poverty, while simultaneously scaling up social assistance programs to better prevent those unable to work from falling below Canadian poverty thresholds. Such a measure recognizes that child poverty is the result of poverty within the family unit.
  1. Scale up investment in early learning and childcare programs to 1% of provincial GDP, working towards universally accessible and affordable participation by 2018. Quality early education opportunities have a strong impact on child development, and should be made available to all.
  1. Increase annual investment to allow expansion of Ontario’s Community Opportunities fund from five million to 20 million by 2018, improving opportunities for community-directed neighbourhood revitalization projects. Like everyone, children will interact with their environment, and community factors will also influence healthy development.


  1. Phipps, S., Burton, P., Osberg, L., & Lethbridge, L. (2006). Poverty and the extent of child   obesity in Canada, Norway and the United States. Obesity Reviews, 7(1), 5–12.
  2. Raphael, D. Curry-Stevens, A., & Bryant, T. (2008). Barriers to addressing the societal determinants of health: insights from the Canadian experience. Health Policy, 88, 222-235.
  3. United Nations Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. (2012, May 16). “Olivier De Schutter, Special Rapporteur on the right to food: Visit to Canada from 6 to 16 May 2012.” Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12159&LangID=E
  4. Mikkonen, J. & Raphael D. (2010). Social determinants of health: the Canadian facts. Toronto, Canada: York University School of Health Policy and Management.
  5. Conference Board of Canada. (2013). “Child poverty”. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://www.conferenceboard.ca/hcp/details/society/child-poverty.aspx
  6. Ministry of Children and Youth Services. (2012, December 13). “40,000 children and their families lifted out of poverty”. Retrieved April 28, 2014, from http://news.ontario.ca/mcys/en/2012/12/40000-children-and-their-families-lifted-out-of-            poverty.html
  7. Government of Ontario. (2008). Growing stronger together: Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Plan. Toronto, Canada: Government of Ontario.
  8. Ferguson, H., Bovaird, S., & Mueller, M. (2007). The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children. Pediatric Child Health, 12(8), 701-706.
  9. Barnett, W. (1998). Long-term cognitive and academic effects of early childhood education on children in poverty. Preventive Medicine, 27, 204-207.
  10. Irwin, L., Siddiqi, A., & Hertzman, C. (2007. Early child development: a powerful equalizer. Final Report for the Commission on the Social Determinants of Health. Vacouver: HELP.
  11. Howe, R. & Covell, K. (2003). Child poverty in Canada and the rights of the child. Human Rights Quarterly, 25(4), 1067–1087.
  12. Rothman, L. (2007). Oh Canada! Too many children in poverty for too long. Pediatrics & child health, 12(8), 661–665.
  13. Raphael, D. (2011). Poverty in childhood and adverse health outcomes in adulthood. Maturitas, 69(1), 22–26.
  14. Anderson, E. (2013, October 21). The case for publicly funded child care. The Globe and Mail, p. A6-7.
  15. Hoeppner, C. (2010). Federal poverty reduction plan: working in partnership towards reducing poverty in Canada. Ottawa: Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills, and Social    Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities.
  16. Canadian Medical Association. (2013). Health care in Canada: What makes us sick? Canadian Medical Association Town Hall Report.
  17. Nikiéma, B., Gauvin, L., Zunzunegui, V., & Séguin, L. (2012). Longitudinal patterns of poverty and health in early childhood: exploring the influence of concurrent, previous, and    cumulative poverty on child health outcomes. BMC Pediatrics, 12, 141-154.
  18. CSDH (2008). Closing the gap in a generation: health equity through action on the social determinants of health. Final Report of the Commission on   the Social Determinants of Health. Geneva: World Health Organization.
  19. Faelker, T., Pickett, W., & Brison, R. (2000). Socioeconomic differences in childhood injury: a population based epidemiologic study in Ontario, Canada. Injury Prevention, 6(3), 203–208.


The following two tabs change content below.

Patrick Saunders-Hastings

Commentez / Comment: